In a vacuum, none of this is bad. Schools need to publicize their research, corporations defend their products, and political groups stake their positions. But without the filter provided by journalists, it is hard to divide facts from slant.

It’s also getting tougher to know when a storyline originates with a self-interested party producing its own story. In 2005 and 2006, The New York Times and the advocacy group PR Watch did separate reports detailing how television news was airing video news releases prepared by corporate or government PR offices, working them into stories as part of their newscasts. PR Watch listed seventy-seven stations which aired the reports, some of them broadcast nearly verbatim.

Stacey Woelfel, the past-chairman of the Radio Television Digital News Association, said when his group looked into the issue after it was raised by the reports, it was troubled by how widespread the use of the releases had become. “Some stations were running video news releases all the time, sometimes packages from corporate interests,” he said.

There is evidence that it has not stopped. James Rainey, the Los Angeles Times media columnist, recently won Penn State’s Bart Richards Award for Media Criticism for columns last year that showed how local television stations were running paid content in their news programs. “There’s a good chance that your small screen expert has taken cash to sell, sell, sell,” Rainey wrote in a September 15 column.

In 2008, The New York Times again returned to the issue of hidden public relations agendas with a series of stories in which Barstow showed how the Pentagon was using retired military officers to deliver the military’s message on the war in Iraq and its counterterrorism efforts. Barstow described how the officers were presented on the news programs as independent consultants offering unvarnished opinions.

After being stonewalled by the Pentagon for two years, the Times eventually sued to obtain records about the Defense Department’s use of retired military officers. Barstow found evidence that the officers’ appearances on television were not happenstance, but a carefully coordinated effort of what the Pentagon called “message force multipliers.”

Barstow was struck by the sophistication of the operation. “In a world saturated with spin, viewers tend to tune out official spokespeople and journalists,” he said. “Where they are influenced is when they see people who are perceived to be experts in the subject matter but independent of the government and the media.”

Front Groups Obscure Special Interests

Hiding the PR agenda is not a new tactic, but one that seems to be rising to new levels. One form it takes is front groups, supporting this cause or that, this candidate or that, this product or that, without revealing their ties to the cause, candidate, or product.

Jane Mayer focused national attention on such groups in an encyclopedic article about the Koch brothers last summer in The New Yorker. The article described how the Kochs had funded groups to promote their conservative political philosophy and oppose “so many Obama Administration policies—from heath-care reform to the economic-stimulus program—that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.”

Mayer said one of the most difficult tasks in reporting the story was finding the connections between the groups and their funders. Many people and organizations besides the Kochs fund advocacy groups, and from both ends of the political spectrum. Mayer said it takes so much effort to find out what group is connected with what organization that it is difficult for reporters to keep up.

“You never know what you don’t know—it is getting harder and harder to find out who is behind those front groups,” she said. That is no accident, according to Wendell Potter, a former vice president for corporate communications at CIGNA, the insurance company.

John Sullivan , a former reporter for The New York Times and The Providence Journal, is a freelance journalist. This story is being jointly published with ProPublica.