March 16, 2005
Ask the man in the streetBy Richard N. Weltz
Ask the average American what a VNR is, or a B—roll; and even the educated citizen isn't likely to have a clue, unless he or she has been involved in advertising, public relations, or some other form of mass communication.
To those of us who have had such experience, however, a VNR is simply a 'video news release,' a prepared segment produced for a corporate advertiser, a non—profit organization, or a government department or agency — federal, state, or municipal. They are offered to TV stations who wish to provide information on the subject involved but haven't the time, budget, or facilities to produce the material on their own. A B—roll is the essentially the same thing with just the background visuals (hence the B in the name) and a script for the local station's announcer to read while the photos and graphics 'roll' across the screen.
TV stations throughout the country use VNRs and B—rolls by the thousands every year, and have been doing so for well over a decade.
They are produced and released by the current administration, just as they were in the Clinton administration before it — but, with few members of the public aware of this commonly used electronic communication technique, a couple of enterprising New York Times reporters, whose bylines are not all that familiar to the paper's regular readers, apparently decided that their careers could be enhanced by portraying the practice as secretive and nefarious — at least when used by the Bush administration.
What an ingenious way to curry favor with management by riding on the backs of public ignorance to promote the Pinch attitude toward all things Bushian.
So it was that on March 13 David Barstow and Robin Stein saw their names appear on a lengthy and extensive hatchet—job designed to demonize the administration's use of VNRs and B—rolls to communicate, explain, and report on government programs and policies to the nation.
This shocking 'propaganda,' according to Barstow and Klein even extended to
'the administration's efforts to offer free after—school tutoring, its campaign to curb childhood obesity, its initiatives to preserve forests and wetlands, its plans to fight computer viruses, even its attempts to fight holiday drunken driving.'
Although reluctantly admitting that,
'Federal agencies have been commissioning video news releases since at least the first Clinton administration. An increasing number of state agencies are producing television news reports, too; the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department alone has produced some 500 video news releases since 1993,'
Barstow and Klein spend thousands of words (eight pages worth of the Times's Web site) to paint a dark picture of an administration spending huge amounts of taxpayer dollars to fool and propagandize the public.
In all that verbiage, though, the denigrating duo are unable to come up with even one instance of government use of these TV—age tools to lie in any way. The best they can allege is that news clips announcing the expansion of Medicare are somehow unethical because the program is 'controversial' — no matter that it was enacted as the law of the land by a majority of Congress.
Another major sin, dwelt on at length in the article, is the fact that some station news directors neglect to identify the source of the government—supplied materials — even though they are always supplied clearly identified. When a time—pressed station exec cuts an ID, or deliberately omits it to make his local production look better than it really is, that, too, is a mortal and deliberate transgression of George W and his minions.
Even worse, report Barstow and Stein, the Department of Defense has the outright nerve to produce video releases for local consumption which dare to mention — of all horrible things — our fighting men and women overseas:
Then there is the Army and Air Force Hometown News Service, a unit of 40 reporters and producers set up to send local stations news segments highlighting the accomplishments of military members.... Each year, the unit films thousands of soldiers sending holiday greetings to their hometowns. Increasingly, the unit also produces news reports that reach large audiences. The 50 stories it filed last year were broadcast 236 times in all, reaching 41 million households in the United States.
How dare those Republican military shills use members of our armed forces as political stooges for their ill—conceived wars against terrorism?
Perhaps Barstow and Stein have stumbled upon an effective new technique for demonizing political opponents when there's nothing of substance about which to complain: find a routine activity or program not generally understood by the public, and paint it as some form of the Devil's work.
Inasmuch as the faux demonization of the use of the VNR and B—roll hasn't created quite the stir the Times might have hoped for, despite its disproportionate influence over the news coverage of the hundreds of newspapers which receive its feeds and daily advance front—page copies, an indignant editorial seems to be in order.
And so, today's paper leads its editorial page with a thoroughgoing denunciation of the 'Counterfeit News' being spread by the Bushies through devious means.
The Bush administration has come under a lot of criticism for its attempts to fob off government propaganda as genuine news reports. Whether federal agencies are purchasing the services of supposedly independent columnists or making videos extolling White House initiatives and then disguising them as TV news reports, that's wrong.
I haven't particularly noticed what might reasonably be called 'a lot of criticism.' Some plaintive squeals from the usual left—liberal organs; but not a heck of a lot from most news outlets, whose staffers know the true nature of the VNR, B—roll, press release, and all the other communication techniques used by business and government, and understand them for what they are — legitimate components of any mass communications program.
They seem to recognize, also, that it's not the producer who bears the fault, if any, when someone far down the distribution chain chooses to misuse or fail to identify the material properly — as long as the material in question was accurate and honest when released by its original source.
But it is time to acknowledge that the nation's news organizations have played a large and unappetizing role in deceiving the public.
We can't argue with that one. The Times surely knows whereof it speaks on this point, having moved in recent years into the role of perhaps the nations most misleading and deceptive major newspaper; but stories of Jayson Blair, Dowdification, and all that sort of stuff are for another time and place.
Finally, in its closing lines, the editorial hits a true note:
This kind of practice cheapens the real commodity that television stations have to sell during their news hours: their credibility.
Gail Collins and gang have just got the 'practice' wrong. TV news credibility is hardly damaged by a packaged release explaining new airport security measures or bringing soldiers' holiday greetings back to their home communities. The damage is done by waving counterfeit documents before the cameras in an attempt to influence a national election.
Our memory may be faulty, but the Times editorial condemning such practices and demanding an investigation to expose the perpetrator of criminal forgery of official federal documents just doesn't spring to mind.