♦ Is mainstream network news biased and sometimes faked?
During the past week, several national news organizations apologized for their biased reporting during the latest election cycle, evidently expecting the US public to forgive them and again invest their trust. The apologies may be too late for many Americans who stopped watching network news and reading corporate newspapers. Citizens found themselves tasked with ferreting out facts about the nation’s politics, government, and power structure.
We are no longer guaranteed truth by our media. An entire generation have matured with biased and faked news and hardly noticed it. Some didn’t notice it at all, or denied it could happen. Others joked about it, but kept watching. In recent months leading up to the presidential election of 2016, young and old alike noticed a heavier hand in the molding of what is called US news.
How did mainstream media become biased and sometimes faked?
Although many Americans are under the impression that the Truth in Broadcasting Act was passed in 2005, it was not. Many Americans are also under the impression that the Smith-Mundt Act, passed in 1948, still prevents the public within American borders from being subjected to propaganda. Not so. Smith-Mundt was revised and essentially nullified when President Obama signed HR 4310, the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on December 29, 2012. Section 1078 of that act authorized the use of propaganda inside the US, which was previously banned since 1948 by the Smith-Mundt Act. The NDAA revised and renamed the act as the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 and removed protections from the dissemination of false information within US borders. But the decline of the media began decades earlier, when Reagan vetoed a 1987 bill to make the Fairness Doctrine, a policy of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) since 1949, a law. Since that veto, expectations laid out in the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine for honest, equitable, and balanced presentation of controversial issues significant to the public declined. By the time the 2013 NDAA and the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act were signed into law, and false information could legally be disseminated within US borders, generations of Americans were already accustomed to daily saturation of biased and even faked news.
Did anyone notice fake and biased news before this year?
In March of 2005, a flurry of investigative reporting revealed that not only was the news Americans watched riddled with faked stories in the form of “video news releases” (VNRs). The Corporations and companies such as Pfizer, General Motors, and Panasonic promoted products, services, or events and government agencies promoted messages with VNRs. By the end of the 1980’s, the common practice was that a VNR to present a development in pharmaceuticals or another profitable venture would be picked up by a station (sometimes hundreds of stations) and run as a news report without disclosure of who produced it. Often, the reels would end with a reporter signing off as if he or she worked for the station, such as, “This is John Smith, in Seattle”. The Center for Broadcasting and Democracy investigated just how much news was faked in this way:
Also in March of 2005, The New York Times, whose apology for biased 2016 election coverage this year was released this week, railed the George W. Bush administration for its flood of government-produced and released reports that “to a viewer…looked like any other 90-second segment on the local news” and “fit seamlessly into the typical local news broadcast” because reporters did not state they worked for the government.
In 2006, during a White House press conference with then President Bush, a reporter asked for the president’s views on government-produced news. The question was answered with not only an admission of its use, but also Bush’s explanation about its usefulness abroad and why it did not seem likely to end soon. The reporter also asked if the news reels might would better serve the public if it included disclosures of the source and received a halting response:
Perhaps the most embarrassing fake news made known to the public was the infamous FEMA press conference that was faked, filmed, and sent to news stations in October of 2007. In that conference, Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson, the deputy administrator of FEMA, was asked staged questions he was prepared to answer by FEMA coworkers about a real crisis:
Time magazine reported, “FEMA had responded as it had trained to respond. Since 2000, the nation has held four full-scale exercises to simulate a major terrorist attack. Each time, the ‘mock media’ [was] played by fake reporters — paid PR people, to be specific — just like in the fake FEMA press conference last week.” While the excuse that it was easier to film a fake conference may have been true, FEMA Director of External Affairs Pat Philbin (who had already planned to retire), stepped down.
In 2007, the late Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. gave a speech exposing that “giant multi-national news corporations” controlled almost all 1400 radio stations, all 5,000 TV stations (including CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX, CNN), 80% of the newspapers, and most of the Internet content providers. He stated that Americans are the most entertained and the least informed people on earth. Kennedy also touched on the surprising alignment of thinking of liberal college “kids” and staunch Republicans, both who were disillusioned and alarmed, when he addressed the groups about the state of modern American media:
Then and Now: US Government Media Operations
The roots of government sourced fake media in modern American history were first investigated during 1976 Congressional hearings on the CIA’s dissemination of messaging and infiltration of the media, when the Church Commission’s conclusions included that “in examining the CIA’s past and present use of the U.S. media, the Committee finds two reasons for concern. The first is the potential, inherent in covert media operations, for manipulating or incidentally misleading the American public. The second is the damage to the credibility and independence of a free press which may be caused by covert relationships with the U.S. journalists and media organizations.”
In a report released this month on October 2nd, 2016, the Center for Investigative Broadcasting (CFIB) revealed that the US Pentagon hired a London production company to create media for dissemination in Iraq. As the Church Commission of 1976 had forecast and forewarned, some of that faked media made its way to the American people. The CFIB’s source indicated that the information was cleared directly by then General Petraeus. Three types of videos that were produced were commercials with negative portrayals of al Qaeda, news that looked like it was created by Arabic TV, and fake al Qaeda films. The third, considered “Black Ops”, were intended to look like they were released by al Qaeda itself. CDs of the fake al Qaeda videos could allegedly be placed in certain locations that were raided.
Have you noticed more slanted, controlled, or manipulating media in the US since 2013?
When considering this question, we should keep in mind that is not illegal for Internet data providers to limit our access to certain areas of the web or to individual webpages. Search engines are not regulated for this type of controlled information, either. To see this illustrated, search a term in Google and then DuckDuckGo, and see the difference in the types of results you receive. Many folks have turned away from mainstream news because of blatant fakery only to find themselves blocked from information online or swimming in the Internet’s own sea of fake news – some provided by ideologically-driven individuals or groups. Certainly, we should not tune out and not know what is taking place in our country or world. The information is out there, but we need more than ever to think critically when we look for facts and information and know the signs of what people say, do, and fake to manipulate our opinions.
How is news faked?
Video News Releases (VNRs)
The most common practice seems to be VNRs, or video news releases, which have become so much a part of Americans’ lives over multiple decades that we do not realize it is fake news. A VNR looks like any another news report, with a reporter signing off at the end from Somewhere, USA, except that someone will profit from our watching and buying the pitch embedded in the “news release”. News stations might receive full segments, ready to play, or raw footage that they can edit into their own reports in the studio. Medialink is a prolific of the VNR producers, creating full news reports for its corporate clients.
Here is a screenshot of four VNRs, played simultaneously, from the Center for Broadcasting and Democracy’s website. The first is the pre-fabricated news story created by the maker of Trend Micro identity protection software. The others are pre-mixed versions by three different stations:
VNRs are so common that it is hardly surprising, even seeing them side by side and knowing the source. One type is called Satellite Media Tours (SMT), which are canned interviews with fake reporters played by actors. Radio’s version is referred to as Radio Media Tours (RMT). Some VNRs resemble press conferences, and others seem to be reporters who share information and interviews. Still others are sets of raw footage with scripts to be assembled easily and cheaply by local or national news. No maker of VNRs, SMT, or RMT is required to disclose the relationship or connection between a company and someone is interviewed. Here are two VNR raw footage releases with an example of how footage can be edited into a faked station report with a script supplied by a corporate producer such as Medialink or other provider:
Corporate News Scripts
Another fake news tactic we’ve become accustomed to is a common script that is fed to affiliate stations and across multiple channels from the corporate hubs of mainstream news:
A fourth fakery is the statistical adjustment of media polls. Media who took part in adjusted polling results during the latest election cycle have said that they did so to match what seemed a new trend for elections not to reflect the polls. Some pollers limited numbers of some types of individuals polled by social status, race, or age, while others adjusted the numbers with an algorithm. Despite adjustments, the polls did not result in the polls better mirroring or forecasting election results. The result was media hype about expected results that did not materialize.
Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) and Green Screens
A third tactic is the use of computer generated imagery (CGI) and green-screen filming. Here, as a result of poor videography, CNN’s Anderson Cooper’s face and nose seem to disappear during an interview staged to look as if it is taking place at another location:
To create special effects with green-screen filming, the color of the green background can be replaced with any image the videographer wants. This includes any matching green item worn, held, used, or situated in front of the screen. In the interview footage above, Anderson Cooper’s face partially disappears most likely because of reflections on his face of the green color on the screen behind him or the gleam of a green tinted light in front of him. Common mistakes, visible even in well-crafted movies such as Inception, that occasionally manifest during news broadcasts include visible shadows on the backdrop, partial disappearance during movements by actors, speckling of the computerized image where the color green is reflected or worn, digital meltdown or break-up of a person or thing staged in front of the screen, people or things in front of the screen looking transparent, background noises from the stage area, tinny sounding voices or sounds, indoor echo during an outdoor shoot, and more.
For those who haven’t used or don’t know about green-screen videography and the computerized imagery that can be done with it, many effects that include faking locations can be achieved:
Why has this happened?
Accepting news releases handed to them is much more cost-efficient to the media than investigating and traveling to locations to gain facts and footage. There is a lot of air time and paper space to fill, and as is the case for most of middle-America – budgets are increasingly tight. Additionally, corporations have invested interests in profits. Their leaders invest in ideologies that they believe will further their profit-building goals. Additionally, there are some who work higher in media echelons or own corporate media who want power as well as profit. Perhaps we will find more to learn about deeper motivations for the dissemination of biased and fake news if whistleblowers shed more light on the connections between media, politics, power, profit, corporate interests, and government.
What can we do?
To curb the harm of covert corporate and government propaganda, we will now need legislation or a judicial doctrine to require the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors to attribute their materials. The Truth in Broadcasting Act of 2005 could have done that, but it was never passed. Some investigative journalism did shine light on the fakery, but the trend for biased and fake news has burgeoned. It’s been said that crimes take place when there is the opportunity, the means, and the motive. While we might not presume all news is fake, we might also make it a habit to question what we see, hear, and read. We can also ask our newly elected officials to pass a bill such as Truth in Broadcasting or to reconsider the Fairness Act.
Resources on Biased and Fake News