WHAT IF THE videotape of LA cops beating up a Black man, prominently played on many TV news reports months back, had been fabricated to undercut the legitimacy of the LA police? Or, what if Jesse Jackson vigorously opposed government policy using film footage of unemployed people, who later turned out to be Hollywood extras assembled for the purpose? Such shenanigans would be big news. The perpetrators would be pilloried until their credibility was reduced to zero.
The TV Guide of February 22 to February 28 featured a cover story titled "Fake News," by an otherwise unidentified David Lieberman. The article describes how private companies hire public relations firms to produce tapes that look like independent news reports. These high-quality, self-serving clips are then made available to television news shows that carry them without any special identification. The result, says Lieberman, is that an already large and rapidly increasing percentage of what we see on the nightly news is from private sources. Lieberman calls this "fake news."
Accompanying Lieberman's article is a lengthy sidebar by Morgan Strong, identified as a freelance writer who covers the Mideast. The title is "Portions of the Gulf War were brought to you by...the folks at Hill and Knowlton." Strong's story repeats a relatively familiar revelation that the reporting of Iraqi atrocities against Kuwaiti babies was fabricated and that related testimony given before the UN and Congress and widely shown and reported throughout the U.S., was also false. But the new claim that makes Strong's piece worth reading is that this duplicity was orchestrated by "the public relations firm of Hill and Knowlton headed at the time by Craig Fuller, former chief of staff to George Bush, when he was vice president."
Strong details a variety of techniques used by Hill and Knowlton and lists some of the more extreme fake news perpetrated in the PR firm's effort to build public support for the Gulf War.
IT'S IMPORTANT to realize what is and what isn't new about all this. First, the practice of presenting compromised material as if it was objective is of course as old as the media. (A) Even the material prepared by news staffs of TV stations, newspapers, etc., is not independent. After all, their employer is a corporate giant not an independent, objective, socially-responsible actor. (B) For decades corporations, the Pentagon, and the government have been providing a large proportion of the news that appears on TV and in daily newspapers, through press conferences, position papers, news leaks, and the like, all usually reported without any scrutiny, analysis, or indication of the compromised source. (C) The idea of consciously orchestrating a counterfeit image of reality to galvanize support for heinous acts is also nothing new. In recent history countless media lies exist, but the archetype is probably the Gulf of Tonkin "story" about North Vietnamese militarism against the U.S. Navy.
So what is new in the Gulf War case? The answer is that there is no longer a serious effort to fake the fake news. It is now okay, after the fact, to let everyone know that the news was fake. After all, the fake news did its job. Later revelations only produce more cynicism and more public attention to form and appearance rather than a hidden reality. Revelation also removes the onus and costs of long-term secrecy, and generally jades the population to its own oppression. And with no need for permanent secrecy, the government and corporations can use private PR firms, the best in the business, despite almost guaranteed leaks.
Is this exaggeration? The best way to tell is by assessing the response to the TV Guide story which many millions of people will see. Will the "fake news" story galvanize a militant movement to reclaim the media and restrain government and corporate elites? Will it spur a new law requiring indication when news reports are public relations projects? Will the presidential candidates take up the cry? Or will the story disappear through the cracks, save for the herd of new clients who will no doubt flock to Hill and Knowlton?
THERE IS NO more wide-reaching print media message-bearer than TV Guide. The cover story, "Fake News," says not only did the government lie to pursue its Gulf War aims, the government and corporations lie regularly to pursue their aims, and do it with the connivance of the media so it appears that the lies are honest reports. OK, the TV Guide articles aren't a detailed Noam Chomsky exegesis, and TV Guide isn't a place people turn for critical social analysis, but the articles make an important, revealing point to the widest possible print audience. Those interested in using their own or mainstream media to affect public consciousness need to seriously consider the response, or lack thereof, that this article engenders, in trying to figure out what we should be doing.