The Economist (the link, alas, leads to their premium content) has an interesting little article about fake news – ‘news’ broadcasts put out by the government via local television networks. Bogus reporting (or, more kindly, a video equivalent of issuing a press release) they call it:
The televised interview with John Walters, the White House drug tsar, ran on hundreeds of local stations before the 2004 Super Bowl. “Many parents admit they’re still not taking the drug [marijuana] seriously,” explained the news anchor. “Mike Morris has more.” It ended with the usual sign-off: “This is Mke Morris reporting.” It looked like a new report, and quaked like a news report. but it was not one. The segment had been produced by Mr Walters’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. The apparently independent Mr Morris was on contract to the government.
As the Economist points out the government should not be in the business of advocacy, but it may use public money to provide information. The question is which is which? Regardless of the formality of the decision and which watchdog or arm of the administration has the final say about the legality of such “news management”, the issue here is transparency. Both the government agency and the news programmes should identify the originator of the material they are running.
The most interesting point of the article is not even that – it is highlighting that this administration does not think that the press has “a check-and-balance function” and that this is a fundamental change of attitude compared with previous administrations and makes this one’s use of fake news different.
If there is nothing special about the press, then there is nothing special about what it does. News can be anything – including dress-up government video footage. And anyone can provide it, including the White House, which through local networks, can become a news distributor in its own right. Given the proliferation of media outlets and the eroding of boundaries between news, comment and punditry, someone will use government provided information as news. In short, the traditional notion that the media play a special role in informing people is breaking down.
Behind all this lies a shift in the balance of power in the new business. Power is moving away from old-fashioned networks and newspapers; it is swinging towards, on the one hand, smaller news providers (in the case of blogs, towards individuals) and, on the other, to the institutions of government, which have got into the business of providing news more or less directly. Eventually, perhaps, the new world of blogs will provide as much public scrutiny as newspapers and broadcasters once did.
For myself, I am not too worried about “covert propaganda” in government broadcasts provided there is an individual somewhere in the process who will simply blog about it on his blog…