It’s a night in March, 2009. You’re watching the last few minutes of the CBS Evening News with anchor Gwen Ifill. Scratch that, too optimistic: the CBS Evening News with anchor Nondescript Whiteguy. A correspondent reports the disturbing results of an investigation into Our nation’s schools. It seems that a record number of inner-city schools are failing their students. Test scores and graduation rates are dropping across the country.

Ken Srdjak

After that bit of doom and gloom, Nondescript signs off and a different news show comes on. The reporter on this program looks equally bland, but he has a much sunnier message: American schools are doing better than ever. Thanks to the policies of the current administration, kids have self-esteem in spades and parents brim with pride in their community schools. Just ask this parent. Just look at these smiling pupils raising their hands. Pay no attention to what you saw in that last broadcast.

You turn the TV off, knowing that turning to another channel like CNN would only reveal the same confusing juxtaposition of traditional and triumphant news. You make a mental note to pick up a copy of the newspaper tomorrow morning. Just remember this time not to accidentally take one from those other racks. Those other papers look almost identical to the ones you usually read, but they invariably carry good news about government programs beneath mastheads bearing the names “US Today” and “The New York Time.” Close, but no cigar.

Going online for current events would be just as fruitless. The last time you surfed the Web, you spent 15 minutes reading an “Associate Press” story about the spread of freedom throughout the globe before realizing it was in a pop-up window on top of the Associated Press story you had wanted to read.

You long for the good old days of 2005, when the government’s campaign to counter real news reports with fake ones was still in its infancy. When most of the time you could turn on the TV and count on a real journalist telling you the news.

Back then, the most popular faux-news program was “The Daily Show,” which has long since been overtaken in the ratings by “Good Evening with Armstrong Williams.” People didn’t mind that the White House chief of staff signed Williams’s paychecks, as long as he kept cheering them up at night.

Official public relations passed off as news hardly seemed so pervasive in 2005. Sure, once in a while the local news would turn the mic over to a government shill who the anchor identified as just another reporter for Local 7. Those prepackaged reports issued by the State Department, the Census Bureau and many other agencies seemed fairly harmless — except to the folks at the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. The GAO reported that the spots were designed “to be indistinguishable from news stories produced by private sector television news organizations” and warned against “covert propaganda.”

The real media certainly didn’t mind. They could rely on this mimicry to fill the gaps left after budget cuts forced them to lay off reporters and producers. Besides, it was getting harder and harder to find good staff, as plummeting public trust in the media left aspiring journalists with second thoughts. So where did all those disenchanted communications majors go? Why into PR, of course: They became the actors in the government commercials, and found the pay a good deal better than in the working press.

Recall that back in 2005, satellite subscribers could already turn on the Pentagon Channel for the latest positive reports from Iraq. But Pentagon spokespeople deflected charges of propaganda by pointing out that the network provided full press conferences without any “spin.”

Unfortunately, the government press conference became even less informative than before, as political operatives began taking the seats once occupied by reporters. One pioneer in this field participated in White House press briefings (under the pseudonym Jeff Gannon) as early as 2003, asking President Bush’s spokesman such scathing questions as, “Doesn’t Joe Wilson owe the president and America an apology for his deception and his own intelligence failure?” and “I would like to comment on the angry mob that surrounded Karl Rove’s house on Sunday.” These kind of softballs became the norm in later years.

 

False journalists, make-believe news reports and propaganda channels — they’re all part of the shadow press, amply documented right here in 2005. No science-fiction flights of fancy needed.

I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t covert government propaganda better than what’s on the news right now?

Even after watching Fox 2 Problem Solvers bring weekly vigilante justice to “government workers goofing off on the job,” I still say no. But we may find out sooner than we’d like.

 

Schrader can be reached at jtschrad@umich.edu.

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