But hold the applause for a moment. This presumption of good faith makes us the perfect marks for the new agenda-based fakers. Just last year, the Center for Media and Democracy identified sixty-nine news stations that ran clearly marked government- or industry-produced VNRs as unbiased news during a ten-month period. Many station managers, it was reported, even disguised those advertisements to look like their reporters’ own work and offered no public disclosure.
Doctored pictures from war zones? The Los Angeles Times ran one in 2003, and Reuters ran one last year. Grassroots organizations with Orwellian names like Project Protect, funded not by conservation-minded voters, but the timber industry? The investigative reporter Paul Thacker brought that one to light, along the way revealing that a Fox News science reporter named Steven Milloy had undisclosed ties to the oil and tobacco industries. Milloy discredited reports of the danger of secondhand smoke as “junk science” on foxnews.com, never letting on he was on the payroll of Phillip Morris.
Welcome to journalism’s latest transitional phase, where another rush of technology is changing the business in ways not imaginable ten years ago. Picture, cell, and satellite phones, wireless Internet, cheap digital cameras, Photoshop, and blogger software make it easier to deliver the news and also easier to fake it. If you’re the kind of person who thinks there ought to be a law, there is one, at least for the conduct of our elected officials. Federal statutes prohibit the use of funding for “publicity or propaganda purposes” not authorized by Congress. The ban seems to have been observed as closely as speeding laws in recent years. For the rest of us, however, it’s what they call a self-policing situation.
Late last year, Armstrong Williams, the conservative commentator who took undisclosed payments to promote President Bush’s education agenda, settled his case with the Justice Department. The feds had pursued him not for propaganda violations, though they might have, but under the False Claims Act, for false or fraudulent billing. A weary Armstrong agreed to repay $34,000 to the government and said he was happy to be done with it. He admits no wrongdoing and has committed no crime.
In the exposure, however, he lost his syndicated column and suffered an eighteen-month investigation. The notoriety of his case jump-started a government-wide inquiry into the use of fake news as propaganda, which may actually have done some good. According to USA Today “the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s nonpartisan watchdog, in 2005 found that the deal violated a ban on ‘covert propaganda.’”
But make no mistake; it’s a small, isolated victory. In a time of falling circulation, diminishing news budgets, and dismantled staffs, the fakers are out there, waiting for their opportunities to exploit the authority that modern journalism conveys. Some of us, I fear, aren’t doing all we can to help readers and viewers know the difference between the fake and the honest take. In early January, The Huffington Post reported that The Washington Post’s Web site was talking to Comedy Central about enlisting The Daily Show staff to cover the 2008 presidential campaign. Jon Stewart, the elder statesman of fake news, working for The Washington Post? There was no confirmation of a deal at press time.
So, here’s my totally mock serious signoff: If General Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, who has already appeared once on The Daily Show, returned to announce that he had captured Osama bin Laden, would that be fake news? And what would we call it when it ran in The Washington Post?