Falsies on parade: the worst spinners of 2006

by Sheldon Rampton, Center for Media and Democracy

Here at the Center for Media and Democracy, we've made our year-end list, and our readers have checked it 1,204 times. That can only mean one thing — it's time to announce the winners of the coveted 2006 Falsies Awards!

The Falsies are our way of recognizing the most heinous polluters of the information environment over the past year. We are pleased to offer each Falsies winner a prize that truly reflects their contributions to the public debate: a fake identity kit (see above), a one-way ticket to Palookaville, and a free subscription to the email service that keeps sending us offers for herbal Viagra and business opportunities involving former Nigerian dictators. Falsies winners may collect their prizes by personally visiting our office in Madison, Wisconsin, on any Tuesday between 11:03 and 11:07 a.m. and filling out our 75-page short form.

The two top winners of our third annual Falsies Awards share a love of film. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a misleading moving picture must be worth tens of thousands of lies. In contrast, the third-place Falsies winner spread its money and its message over many media, including the Internet, television, radio and billboards. All the better to spin you with, my dear!

Dishonorable mentions go to a partisan front group, anti-environmental think tanks, efforts to recruit elementary school children for the military, and paid bloggers posing as grassroots supporters of the world's largest retailer. Lastly, the 1,204 respondents to our Falsies Awards survey nominated dozens of other worthy recipients, several of whom are mentioned below in our Reader's Choice Awards.

Without further ado, the winners of the 2006 Falsies Awards are (drumroll, please!)...

Golden Falsie: The ABCs of History

The most false of Falsies goes to the American Broadcasting Corporation. ABC used the fifth anniversary of the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States as an opportunity to rewrite history, broadcasting "The Path to 9/11," a six-hour "docudrama" written and produced by conservative filmmakers. The made-for-TV blockbuster placed the lion’s share of the blame for the attacks on alleged failures of the Clinton administration. None other than Rush Limbaugh talked up the movie, noting that its screenwriter, Cyrus Nowrasteh, was a personal friend.

Although it purported to be based on the report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, "The Path to 9/11" included fabrications that are directly contradicted by the Commission report. One such scene portrays Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, refusing to give permission for the Central Intelligence Agency to capture Osama bin Laden.

Several weeks prior to the movie's broadcast, publicists sent out advance DVDs to conservative bloggers, and screenings were held for conservative pundits like U.S. News & World Report writer Michael Barone. Even relatively obscure right-wing blogs such as Patterico’s Pontifications received advance screenings (and reciprocated with flattering reviews), while liberal bloggers and members of the Clinton administration who requested advance copies were stonewalled.

Silver Falsie: Front Group for Fake News

In April 2006, the Center for Media and Democracy issued "Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed," a report that documented television stations' use of public relations videos designed to look like real reporting. Dozens of TV stations across the United States aired pre-packaged video news releases (VNRs) or canned satellite media tour (SMT) interviews, and failed to tell viewers that a company had funded the segment. Subsequently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched an investigation of these incidents.

The PR firms that make their living off of VNRs and SMTs were not amused, and responded by creating the National Association of Broadcast Communicators. This authoritative-sounding group wins second billing in this year's Falsies Awards, for defending such systematic deception of news audiences while claiming to support "the FCC's efforts to ensure compliance with the sponsorship identification requirements."

These silver-tongued communicators share their Silver Falsie with the Radio-Television News Directors Association, a broadcasters' group that smeared the April report as "inaccurate, misleading and unreliable," and attempted to wrap fake news in the First Amendment. The association claimed that the FCC investigation "already has had a chilling effect on the dissemination of newsworthy information to the public."

Funny, but we didn't notice any chill while compiling our follow-up report, "Still Not the News: Stations Overwhelmingly Fail to Disclose VNRs." Of the 140 VNR broadcasts documented between the two reports, TV stations offered clear disclosure of the videos' nature and source only twice. There's something very wrong with this picture.

Bronze Falsie: Neutralizing Net Neutrality

In two reports, Common Cause exposed more than a dozen front groups for telephone and cable companies. These groups hide their industry ties and often "claim to represent huge numbers of citizens, but in reality their public support is minimal or nonexistent," Common Cause wrote. Such campaigns "deliberately mislead citizens, and they deliberately mislead our lawmakers, who are already charged with the difficult task of making sense of complex telecommunications policies."

A frequent target of the telecom front groups is net neutrality, the principle that Internet providers should not favor some content and applications over others. Industry-funded groups with nice-sounding names like Hands Off the Internet, FreedomWorks, Consumers for Cable Choice, Progress and Freedom Foundation and Frontiers of Freedom claim that net neutrality would increase costs and reduce choices for consumers. Verizon Communications hired pollsters to conduct a misleading opinion survey purporting to show that consumers oppose net neutrality. One leading poll question asked respondents which is more important: "the benefits of new TV and video choice" and "lower prices for cable TV," or "barring high speed internet providers from offering specialized services ... for a fee"? The National Journal reported that telecom companies were spending $850,000 per week to attack net neutrality in advertisements placed "anywhere a congressional staffer is likely to be — including the Washington area transit system" and "at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport."

Dishonorable Mentions

  • Not-so-Swift Veterans for Freedom: A group calling itself "Vets for Freedom" claimed to be "non-partisan" in early 2006, when it appeared out of the blue and began placing op-ed pieces in the New York Times and other major publications. An investigation by citizen journalists at SourceWatch and by the Buffalo News blew the VFF claim of non-partisanship out of the water. For instance, the Buffalo News revealed in June that former White House flack Taylor Gross, who left Scott McClellan's office in 2005 to start his own PR firm, represented VFF and pitched them to papers as non-partisan journalists who would embed for these newspapers and report accurately and cheaply for them from Iraq. The Wall Street Journal reported that VFF was being handled by Republican strategist Dan Senor, and its website turned out to be the work of the Donatelli Group, the same Republican consulting firm that previously set up Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to attack John Kerry in 2004.
  • Putting a Tiger in Your Think Tank: As columnist George Monbiot noted in September 2006, journalists and media outlets routinely fail to ensure adequate disclosure of funding sources when interviewing supposed experts on global warming. "While the BBC would seldom allow someone from Bell Pottinger or Burson-Marsteller on air to discuss an issue of concern to their sponsors without revealing the sponsors' identity, the BBC has frequently allowed International Policy Network's executive director, Julian Morris, to present IPN's case without declaring its backers. IPN has so far received $295,000 from Exxon's corporate headquarters in the US." Exxon gave at least $6.8 million to nonprofit groups in 2005, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute (also funded by the American Petroleum Institute, Ford and General Motors), which recently ran television ads arguing that carbon dioxide, widely seen as the main global-warming gas, is "life." Another Exxon operation, the DCI Group, anonymously distributed a video on YouTube mocking Al Gore's campaign against global warming. The White House has also helped spin the global warming discussion. An investigation by science writer Paul Thacker found that the White House was "controlling access to scientists and vetting reporters. ... After Hurricane Katrina, NOAA press officers had to get clearance from the Department of Commerce for scientists to discuss global warming and hurricanes with the press."
  • Reading, Writing and Recruitment: Military recruiters are placing advertising in schools, on airplanes and TV. Carus Publishing, which publishes magazines for children ranging from preschoolers to teenagers, is promoting military careers to elementary- and middle-schoolers. Their May 2006 issue of Cobblestone magazine, titled "Duty, Honor, Country," was unabashedly pro-military, appearing as if it were the product of military recruiters trying to market enlistment to children. An accompanying teachers' supplement recommended that teachers "invite an Army member, Army recruiter, and/or a war veteran to come and speak to your class." Another proposed activity: have students "pretend they are going to join the Army. Have them decide which career they feel they would qualify for and write a paper to persuade a recruiter why that should be the career they should be allowed to train for in the Army."
  • Wal-Mart Hypocritics on Paid Critics: On behalf of Wal-Mart Stores, employees of the Edelman PR firm posed as "grassroots" bloggers on two Wal-Mart-sponsored websites, for the Working Families for Wal-Mart front group and paidcritics.com, which — rather ironically — slams the "paid critics [who are] smearing Wal-Mart." Edelman's Kate Marshall praised a Wall Street Journal editorial for exposing "Wake Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch as front groups of the union leaders." If you can take more hypocrisy, read the Advertising Age article on how Edelman "is being aligned with a newly coined word for its present crisis" over walmartingacrossamerica.com: "flog," for "fake blog." AdAge points out that Edelman helped write the Word of Mouth Marketing Association's (WOMMA's) code of ethics, which states, "Never obscure your identity." In another blunder for Wal-Mart, its hiring of former civil rights leader Andrew Young as a Working Families for Wal-Mart spokesman turned embarrassing when Young had to resign after making disparaging remarks about small local stores owned by Jews, Koreans and Arabs.

Reader's Choice Awards

Many of our readers felt that President George W. Bush or members of his administration (Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Donald Rumsfeld in particular) deserved an award for deceiving the public about the war in Iraq. One reader called Bush the "Chief Liar in Charge. Everything that has come out of this foul creature's mouth has been an unmitigated lie."

The Fox News Corporation — in particular, Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly — also received quite a few nominations for, in the words of one reader, "turning out an entire segment of totally misinformed Americans who think they know the truth and are militant to those on the 'left' whom they perceive as hostile to the better interests of America. They have fomented unrest in this country by exploiting our divisions for political and financial gain."

Rush Limbaugh was also a popular candidate. One reader felt he deserved the award for his services as a "liar, propagandist for the far right and for what he did in regard to Michael Fox." Other nominees included think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation, PR firms, such as the Lincoln Group and Russo Marsh & Rogers, and lobbyists, such as Jack Abramoff and Grover Norquist.

Hoisted On Our Own Petard?

As in the past, this year's Falsies survey prompted a couple of readers to suggest that we deserved the award ourselves. One person wrote that the Center for Media and Democracy deserved it for "portraying themselves as a watchdog for clean government, when in fact they are nothing but a front group for the Democratic Party." Another wrote that we have been "consistently silent about the story that is by far the most significant PR story in America: The mainstream media's complicity in lying and distorting facts and information about the Israeli Palestinian conflict. While Lebanon was being mercilessly bombed by Israeli forces, this disgraceful organization continued to put out emails highlighting stories that were utterly irrelevant in comparison. You all are the worst of the worst as far as I'm concerned."

As much as we appreciate being considered, unfortunately we cannot accept. Under the terms of CMD's conflict of interest policy, our employees and their immediate families (spouses and parents, children and siblings and their respective spouses and members of their household) are not eligible to participate in CMD-sponsored contests or to receive prizes.

Methodology

To compile this year's Falsies Awards, CMD staff used a highly scientific, double-blinded survey method in which each CMD staff member participated anonymously by wearing a fake nose, mustache and eyeglasses while listing his or her personal top proposed award nominees. These nominations were then reviewed by CMD research director Sheldon Rampton, who compiled a final list of 14 nominees and wrote a short, explanatory diatribe describing each candidate's basis for eligibility. Readers of the PR Watch website were then asked to vote in an online survey. For a statistical summary of the results, see "Falsies 2006: Reader Responses."

article originally published at http://www.prwatch.org/falsies2006.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey