When Local News is Neither Local nor News

Okay, after a long hard day at work you sit down to relax and turn on the local news. A teaser announces that coming up is a story about a fantastic new breakthrough in treatment for skin problems. It just so happens that your skin has been getting a little rough and scaly and nothing seems to work so instead of channel surfing you sit tight through the commercials and wait for the segment on this medical breakthrough. Amazingly, enough the story actually does air in the next segment. You watch as a reporter you don’t recognize interviews a member of the company that is marketing the new skin care product. It sounds pretty darn good and you think you’ll try it. This must be something if it actually made the news, right?

Think again. It’s not local, it’s not news, and that wasn’t even a reporter. The whole thing was produced by the very same company hyping its “miracle breakthrough.” But your local television station aired it anyway. Think something like that doesn’t happen very often? I reiterate: Think again.

These self-produced segments are known as video news releases or VNR’s. And they are produced and distributed by a whole host companies as well as government entities. According to those television stations who’ve been caught airing this kind of fake news, they usually make it onto the newscast purely as a result of laziness. They simply didn’t take the time to examine whether it was a legitimate news report or not. KPIX in San Francisco aired a VNR produced by Pfizer. “A mistake,” they called it. WSYR in Syracuse aired a VNR produced by Towers Perrin. “A mistake,” they called it.

These may very well be mistakes. But what of stations that have been caught airing a VNR on multiple occasions? How many mistakes do you have to make before you get fired for incompetence or stupidity? Or, perhaps the better question might be, how many times will you try to get away with airing a VNR on purpose before you know you can’t use that “it was a mistake” argument any more?

What’s wrong with airing a VNR? Is it really that horrific? Well, for one thing, I don’t know about you but when I sit down to watch my local news-which is rare, but for a multiplicity of reasons-I do so to catch up on what’s actually happening in my community. Not only do I not watch my local news for coverage of what’s going on in Israel or keeping up with the latest on Natalee Holloway or JonBenet Ramsay or OJ Simpson, but I also don’t watch it in order to watch stealth commercials. I get plenty of those as it is, thank you very much. I understand that many local news bureaus are strapped for cash and can’t actually cover much local news and therefore depend on canned interviews and third-party feeds, but that’s different. If I’m watching a canned report about the state Senate appropriating money for some pork project, I know to turn the channel and come back later.

But what about when I’m watching a news report that shows an Iraqi-American in Kansas City jubilantly thanking Pres. Bush for toppling Baghdad or other stories that can be viewed as a drumbeat for the health, educational or economic policies of Pres. Bush? Why should I view these reports with suspicion? They aren’t trying to sell me on skin cream or computers or ethanol. How can they possibly be anything but authentic?

Because they were produced and distributed by the federal government. At least twenty different federal agencies have produced video news releases which cannot be considered anything other than propaganda pieces for the Bush administration. In essence, these little snippets of fake news are nothing different from the propaganda films produced under the guidance of Hitler or Stalin. Or the US, for that matter. Don’t think that the US was as guilty of hilariously leaden propaganda as the Soviet Union? Get up early and turn on the History Channel around 6:50 AM Eastern time. After the commercial-free documentary on whatever that aired at 6:00 AM, they usually show a side-splitting “educational film” from the fifties or sixties that demonizes everything un-American and presents whatever we were doing back then as a crusade in the name of good. Even the Vietnam War seems like a good idea when you watch these things.

Back to the Bush-produced VNR propaganda. These government propaganda films look for all the world like a locally produced news segment. They feature a “reporter” conducting interviews with government officials that sometimes aren’t even scripted. The worst thing about this propaganda films, however, may be that your local anchors introduce them with the same kind of patter that they would introduce an honest report by a local team on an issue such as the local real estate market, or where to find the cheapest gas in the area. To the average viewer, these Bush-approved VNR segments look like nothing more than another news segment.

They aren’t. They are commercials, whether for skin care products or Pres. Bush. Commercials plain and simple. And they are being sold to you as news. Local news at that. I mean, we might well forgive little Katie Couric for hosting a report on the magic of Harry Potter and trying to disguise it as news, but is it too much to ask that our local newscasts be devoted to real local news?

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