Fake news

By Dogtown Commoner | Posted at 12:41 pm, October 27th, 2007 | Topic: politics, the press

FEMA is appropriately getting criticized (and ridiculed) for staging a fake press conference, with FEMA employees standing in for reporters and lobbing softball questions at the agency’s deputy administrator:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House scolded the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday for staging a phony news conference about assistance to victims of wildfires in southern California.

The agency — much maligned for its sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina over two years ago — arranged to have FEMA employees play the part of independent reporters Tuesday and ask questions of Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson, the agency’s deputy director.

The questions were predictably soft and gratuitous.

“I’m very happy with FEMA’s response,” Johnson said in reply to one query from an agency employee.

It’s easy to see why government officials might think this is okay, since the press itself so often fails to preserve its independence and skepticism. Many press conferences look more like chummy chats than pointed interrogations. Reporters are often more concerned with developing sources and staying in the good graces of powerful officials than telling readers and viewers what they need to know. The unquestioning and lazy coverage of the march to war in 2002 and 2003 was just one egregious example of how the press fails the public. And that’s when reporters are acting within the ethical norms of the profession.

When the press steps beyond those ethical norms, things get even more pathetic. Many TV stations are willing to broadcast “video news releases” produced by PR firms featuring actors instead of reporters, with no disclosure to viewers that they are watching PR rather than actual journalism. (The White House itself, which quickly repudiated FEMA’s sham news conference, embraced fake news just two years ago, even after the Government Accountability Office warned that such propaganda was unethical and illegal.) And then there are cases like Armstrong Williams, the columnist and commentator who was being paid several hundred thousand dollars by the Department of Education to promote Bush’s education policy.

With reporters acting like dupes so much of the time, it’s no wonder that government officials might think that no one would notice if the press corps was replaced with paid employees at a news conference. (And apparently no one in the press did notice, or thought it was newsworthy, until a Washington Post columnist exposed the phoniness.) And with the reporters acting like saps so much of the time, it’s no wonder that fake news shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are so populat, and fake presidential candidates like Stephen Colbert can poll in the double digits.