I read The New York Times pretty regularly, though I’m finding it harder and harder lately to convince myself I should. The Times is a significant newspaper with international standing and a long history in American journalism. It’s informative, well-edited (most of the time), and generally reliable on the facts. And when it isn’t, it’s usually professional in admitting and correcting its errors. Of course everyone makes errors – we’re only human. But none of us can be purely objective either, and the Times is no exception.

Editors routinely select and arrange the news stories they carry to highlight what they want us to know and downplay what they don’t. Times editors do this no less than editors of other papers. Editorial policy necessarily extends well beyond the editorial page. Columnists often are an exception – but not a serious one, as most (though not all) columnists also tend to reflect the perspectives of those who own and run the papers carrying them. But it’s the news stories that usually tell the tale.

An article in the Sunday, March 13, edition of the Times carried a particularly edifying front page piece on a relatively modern phenomenon: video press releases. UNDER BUSH, A NEW AGE OF PREPACKAGED NEWS has taken hold, blared the headline. The ensuing article reported that various governmental agencies within the Bush administration have been producing and distributing video releases couched as reportorial coverage of news events. These releases get sent out to local television stations around the country, according to the piece, and often are picked up and run by such stations as news clips to fill air time. Many of the local stations run them unedited or without clear attribution to tell viewers they are not the product of the station’s own critical, independent journalism. Some stations, in fact, appear to have been guilty of deliberately obscuring the governmental sources of this material to make it look like the stuff is their own work.

The Times report was a lengthy piece that began on page one and occupied a boxed-in area extending over three of six front page newsprint columns, with color photos depicting scenes from four such video releases at the top. It went on to fill one and a half more pages on the inside of the paper, across ten columns of newsprint and roughly 109 paragraphs (no, I didn’t count the words). The gist was that the Bush administration has been systematically putting out managed news and allowing, facilitating or encouraging local news program editorial staff to treat this material as hard news and give it air time.

The video spots, the article noted, are shot like real news reportage, but without anything critical in the copy. The interviewees are generally fully aware of what they’re going to be asked and real reporters are often paid to provide voice-over narration and conduct the interviews. Many local TV news programs then cut corners, when they run such spots, allowing them to appear as though they are the local programs’ own efforts. The Times piece suggests this plays into the hands of the administration by conveying the impression to local viewers that they are getting hard news when they aren’t.

Oddly, though, you had to read on to the second page of the Times article before learning, in the 13th paragraph, that this practice “also occurred in the Clinton administration” and it’s not until you finally hit the 31st paragraph that we read that “federal agencies have been commissioning video news releases since at least the first Clinton administration.” So this practice may be even older than the Clinton years . . . and is certainly not new with the Bush team. But, the Times article immediately assured us, “under the Bush administration, federal agencies appear to be producing more . . .” – though it failed to offer any hard evidence of this.

While noting that “a definitive accounting is nearly impossible,” the Times pointed out that “several large U.S. agencies . . . acknowledge expanded efforts . . .” and added that a recent study, by Congressional Democrats no less, claims the Bush administration spent “nearly double” in its first term on public relations over what the Clinton administration had spent.

Since public relations spending presumably includes expenditures for the kinds of releases reported on in the article, this is, according to the Times, “another rough indicator” that the Bushies are doing more of this kind of suspect stuff.

In fact, video releases appear to be the modern equivalent of press releases. Typically, politicians, organizations, and government officials and agencies – seeking to draw attention to stories or information they want disseminated – issue print releases to the media. Such releases are usually phrased as news stories to make it easier for their recipients to use them. While the larger newspapers will pick through such releases, using them for back-up and sometimes for newsworthy quotes, smaller papers, lacking the reportorial manpower, will often run them “as is.” Those who send out the releases love that, of course, because it gives them editorial control over apparent journalistic content.

The Times report, in fact, flags a technological shift that has pushed this practice of issuing press releases into the world of television reportage at least since the first Clinton administration. But it does this by suggesting, over the course of 109 sometimes long and repetitive paragraphs, that the Bush administration has somehow engaged in cynical news manipulation on an unprecedented scale, beyond anything done in the Clinton years. For those who oppose the Bush administration, this is music to their ears. It seems to support all the hysterical allegations of government propaganda, interference with the free press, suppression of free speech on the airwaves, etc., that have been bandied about with near abandon by anti-administration ideologues. But what it’s really telling us is something else.

Wading through the piece one comes away with the impression that the administration has been trying to be innovative in getting its message out. This is not surprising in the face of the relentlessly hostile mainstream press that has been nipping at its heels since 2000. But the real question is whether these so-called video releases by the government have crowded out real news and thereby served to alter the message heard by Americans through their news media.

Actually, criticism of the administration in the media has rarely been so vocal or so adversarial as it is today. The tone at administration press conferences is often confrontational and sometimes overtly hostile (think Helen Thomas). The New York Times, among other media organs, hammers at the Bush White House almost daily with news stories that accentuate the negative. Major national news broadcasters have, in order to salvage their own credibility, had to terminate producers, and even newscasters, over questionable reporting aimed at the president. Is it any wonder, then, that the administration may feel compelled to rely on relatively new methods for getting its story out? Is the fact that the administration is working vigorously in this way, in the face of a press that often identifies itself with the political opposition, indication of news manipulation?

So, are all those press releases, which often are printed verbatim in smaller local newspapers, wrong? Are the politicians who issue them cynically engaging in news manipulation merely because they follow the established and time-honored practice of writing their own news stories in the knowledge that some local editors may cut corners and run their pieces as “hard news”?

In the best of all possible worlds, we could all get our messages out without editors eager to put their own spin on events or shape the facts to fit their own viewpoints. But that is not this world. Ours is a world of competing interests and, in such a world, we all do our best to be heard. The real measure is whether or not anyone is drowning anyone else out. By all indications, no one is drowning out those who despise the Bush administration and want to cast it in the worst possible light. Certainly The Times’s voice is as loud and persistent as ever.


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Stuart W. Mirsky, a former New York City official and longtime Republican activist, is the author of several books, including a historical novel about Vikings and Indians in eleventh-century North America (“The King of Vinland's Saga”); a Holocaust memoir about a young Jewish girl trapped in eastern Poland at the height of World War II (“A Raft on the River”), and a work of contemporary moral philosophy (“Choice and Action”) exploring the linguistic and logical underpinnings of our ethical beliefs.