Many people have heard that the mainstream corporate media lies to people. But few know exactly how that is done. As long ago as 2006, a study by The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch in Madison publicized one technique – video news releases (VNRs). While most VNRs are created by corporations with the intent of selling a product, the U.S. government uses them to sell its policies.
Dozens of television stations have been investigated for broadcasting VNRs produced by corporations or the U.S. government and passing them off as real news. The use of VNRs without full disclosure of the source is illegal and carries a fine from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Television newscasts, which remain the most popular news source for most people in the United States, frequently air VNRs without disclosure to viewers, without conducting their own reporting, and even without fact checking the claims made in the VNRs.
Many of the corporate reports, produced by drugs manufacturers such as Pfizer, focus on health issues and promote the manufacturer’s product. Disclosure information regarding the source is sometimes removed when it is broadcast by the television channel, as was the case with Fox-owned stations in St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Miami and South Bend, IN.
Here’s one example of a corporation using a VNR, as reported by TV News Lies:
NEWS ALERT: A man survived a jump from a plane this afternoon. He was not wearing a parachute and he credits his new Nike Plane Jumpers with cushioning his fall.
Now let’s say that story is completely true. All the networks and printed media pick up the story. Front page, lead story. Well, what they forgot to tell you was that the plane was a 2 seater plane, and it was on the runway, stopped, and the jump was from 3 feet off the ground. Now the full story was available to all the media, but Fox News does not feel that those details are important.
That may be a great corporate plug for Nike, but it is nothing that is even close to the truth about what really happened in that event.
A bigger problem arises when the U.S. government uses VNRs to “sell” policies such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A classic example is a VNR put out by the state department about Jessica Lynch. It was the basis for a story published in the Washington Post, written by “journalists” Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loer (which has since been redacted once the truth came out):
Pfc. Jessica Lynch, rescued Tuesday from an Iraqi hospital, fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed the Army’s 507th Ordnance Maintenance company, firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition, U.S. officials said yesterday.
Lynch, 19, a supply clerk, continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die in fighting 11 days ago, one official said. The ambush took place after a 507th convoy took a wrong turn in the southern city of Nasiriyah.
“She was fighting to the death,” the official said. “She did not want to be taken alive.”
Great story, but the only problem is that none of it was true. The truth is, Lynch never fired a shot at Nasiriyah. Her rifle jammed during the attack. She suffered shattering injuries when a rocket-propelled grenade struck her Humvee, causing the vehicle to crash. But she was not shot or stabbed.
The “official” VNR narrative of Pat Tillman, a NFL football player who became an army ranger and was killed while deployed in Afghanistan, was also proven to be false.
Citing “unnamed” officials as if they were reputable sources has become common in the corporate media and the range of VNRs is wide. As quoted in the Independent UK:
“We know we only had partial access to these VNRs and yet we found 77 stations using them,” said Diana Farsetta, one of the group’s researchers. “I would say it’s pretty extraordinary. The picture we found was much worse than we expected going into the investigation in terms of just how widely these get played and how frequently these pre-packaged segments are put on the air.”
Among other items provided by the Bush administration to news stations was one in which an Iraqi-American in Kansas City was seen saying “Thank you Bush. Thank you USA” in response to the 2003 fall of Baghdad. The footage was actually produced by the State Department, one of 20 federal agencies that have produced and distributed such items. George W. Bush admitted to that practice in a press conference.
Another VNR used by the U.S. government was the staged, fake coverage of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad. The truth is that the jubilant crowd cheering the take-down of the statue was a rent-a-crowd from Saddam City, a poor neighborhood some distance away and the entire VNR was staged by army psy-ops.
According to an article by Peter Maas writing for The New Yorker:
Propaganda has been a staple of warfare for ages, but the notion of creating events on the battlefield, as opposed to repackaging real ones after the fact, is a modern development. It expresses a media theory developed by, among others, Walter Lippmann, who after the First World War identified the components of wartime mythmaking as “the casual fact, the creative imagination, the will to believe, and out of these three elements, a counterfeit of reality.” As he put it, “Men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities [and] in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond.”
Many of these these outright lies elicit the intended response from Americans, as was apparent in the overwhelming public support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Many people continue to be oblivious to the fact that corporate-owned media and TV news lies to them. One of the 14 defining characteristics of fascism is a controlled media. That is obviously the case in the U.S., where journalists who are supposed to be doing their jobs and reporting the truth simply rebroadcast or reprint VNRs without any fact-checking.
SourceWatch recommends that Americans report suspected VNRs to the FCC after contacting the managing editor of the station in order to determine that it was indeed a pre-packaged segment from an affiliate. Here’s how to file a complaint:
Go to FCC.gov. On the right side of the home page, under the column titled “Bureaus and Offices,” click on “Enforcement.” This takes you to the Enforcement Page. On the right side of the page, under “What We Do,” click on “Broadcast Issues.” On the next page, under “Information You Can Use,” click on the fifth line down that says, “Payola and Sponsorship Identification.” There you will find the sections of the Communications Act that require broadcasters to disclose whether broadcasted matter has been aired in exchange for money, services or other valuable consideration. The page contains a table listing enforcement actions that have been taken, with links to descriptions of those actions. Below the table are instructions about “How to File a Complaint.”
According to the Independent UK, spokesman Craig Aaron from Free Press, another non-profit group that focuses on media policy, said more than 25,000 people have written to the FCC about the VNRs.
It will be interesting to see what happens when more and more Americans realize that much of their news is fake. Will TV news outlets continue to lose viewers as more people turn to the internet for their news? That seems to be the case. According to a Pew Research Center report in 2011, viewership for Fox News declined by 11 percent, CNN plummeted by 37 percent, and MSNBC was down 5 percent.
No one likes to be lied to.