David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

How to Manipulate the TV News

I’ve always been skeptical of television news. Most of the time, it’s been just a generalized distrust without any real basis in fact or evidence. But over the past couple years, I’ve gotten first-hand knowledge of how easily it is to manipulate television news.

A company I used to work for (which shall remain nameless) has received coverage on somewhere between 75 to 100 TV news outlets, both local and national. MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, and CBS all covered us. And I’m sorry to report that the quality of these TV reports has been execrable at best.

Scene from the film NetworkWe manipulated the TV news, and it was easy. I wrote about this kind of thing in my novel Infoquake, but I didn’t realize how close to the mark I really was.

Here’s how it worked:

1. Sign up a customer in an out-of-the-way city. This wasn’t so much a conscious decision as a reality of the business. Small businesses were much more likely to take a chance on our product than big businesses — especially when they were handed free equipment and given six-month trial periods.

2. Send out a press release to national and local media. The press release would say, in effect, “our new technology x is coming to Walla Walla, Washington — the first use of technology x in this part of Washington state!” Then it would quote statistics of the growing acceptance of our product… due in large part to other customers on six-month trial periods.

3. Provide canned video footage. We hired a videographer to shoot footage of the product being demoed in our own offices and at friendly customer locations nearby. Then we made this video available to news organizations on DVD and via password-protected websites. Almost every station used snippets of this footage without question, and without attribution of any kind. As far as the audience was concerned, this was footage shot by the TV station cameraperson.

4. Stock the customer’s location with our own employees. Few stations relied exclusively on our footage, of course. But when they did bring their own camera crew around to one of our customers to film, we would stock the location with our own employees and their friends. The result: probably 60% of the “customers” talking onscreen about the wonders of technology x were, in fact, company employees.

5. Be flexible with employee titles and positions. Amazingly enough, when the Spanish-language TV stations and print journalists came around to tour our headquarters, all the techs fiddling with the equipment were all Hispanic. And the customers onsite were all Hispanic too.

6. Let the laziness of the TV news team do the rest. Once the national news teams did their pieces, our job was essentially done. Local affiliates would just chop up the same footage and repeat it all over the country. Often they would simply have a local reporter overdub the narration word for word in their own voices. Sometimes the local anchors would literally read the same scripted banter after the segment and crack the same jokes as the national anchors.

Fact checking was almost non-existent. One news station announced several times that it was reporting from “Salt Lake City, Idaho.” Most of the TV reporters would repeat the same fuzzy statistics that we had included on our press release without any scrutiny. (And if they did seek references, we could always provide them with the results of the consumer research that we funded.)

All in all, these news clips were almost entirely uncritical. They provided much less content than our own press releases, and were usually condensed into 30 seconds to two minutes. The only critical aspect of these pieces at all was the routine appearance of the Skeptical Expert, who would sit in front of a computer and wag his/her finger pronouncing that the technology was “unproven” and that there were “legitimate privacy concerns.” News stations picked up the same 10-second clips of the same two or three experts over and over again. (And it goes without saying that the Skeptical Experts didn’t look nearly as authoritative as our handsome and telegenic CEO.)

But don’t be too hard on us for not taking the news coverage seriously. Neither did the TV stations. The story that ran on a national CBS news show started off with a very dramatic tie-in to CBS’s flagship drama CSi. This despite the fact that the relationship between our product and anything that happens on CSi was, to be charitable, extremely thin. Most of the CBS affiliates that picked up the story used the same CSi clip too.

Frightened yet?

Now before you get too upset, let me provide a few caveats. We never lied to anyone, or actively deceived anyone. Our product was a pretty good one. It’s not like we rigged the demonstration to show technology x doing something it was incapable of doing. Everything our people said on film could have been repeated under oath in a court of law. Besides which, if the product was a total sham, nobody would have wanted to cover it in the first place, right?

We simply did what any company would do: we presented our product in the best possible light. That was our job. And the TV news crews were doing their job: providing light entertainment.

The really frightening thing is that we were a small company without a heck of a lot in the way of resources. I can barely imagine what the PR flacks for GE and Microsoft and Halliburton and GM and Kaiser Permanente and so on could accomplish. What if there really were major flaws to hide? What if the product really was majorly flawed?

So the end result is this: I still distrust the TV news, even more than before. Only now I’ve seen it from the inside, and I’ve got good reason.

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  1. Jose on July 28, 2006 at 2:38 pm  Chain link

    I had a similar rude awakening a few years back during the Rodney King riots. I was in Toronto at the time and there was a small sympathetic protest that broke out the same day.

    I was in a shopping mall at the time and mall security wouldn’t let me and my girlfriend leave by the exit that would have led us straight into the subway on account of “the riot”. Ironicaly enough the only exit they would let us use led us directly into the “riot”. As a consequence I got to see what was happening first hand. Mainly a small group of 20 protesters (black) along with a much larger group of rowdy youths (white). All the trouble was basicaly caused by bored white kids who basicaly co-opted the protest for a bit of hell raising.

    The tv news completely missed this angle even though it was perfectly visible in their footage. Just about every statement the talking heads were making was factually incorrect. For some added irony the whole event took place about 2-3 blocks away from the news studio.

    Since then I’ve taken tv news with a healthy grain of salt.

  2. LJ's penpusher on July 28, 2006 at 6:04 pm  Chain link

    Hey… so, would you like to come on “talk_show,” the LJ place where users discuss their lives and experiences? I’d be fascinated to hear more of your stories and I know the audience that reads that journal would as well.

    Contact me at my email if you have any interest. Thanks!

  3. Jodi Davis on August 16, 2006 at 12:16 am  Chain link

    As a teenager, my father was an air traffic controller who went on strike – and, lesson for my parents too – we had a hard lesson on the way news stories are done – even *investigative* journalism.

    Since then I’ve worked in PR and Media Relations – and honestly, I get a bit of perverse revenge glee in seeing a release I wrote reported verbatim by a *reporter.*

    An evil thought came to mind last night after seeing a CNN report on terrorist attack spots in America… All a terrorist group has to do is attack anything – or even try to attack anything, and then claim that they targeted that spot because of a specific news report… On one hand, terrorists win and we no longer have *free* news media in America… and on the hand that I scared myself with… I almost wasn’t too upset about what 95% of their dissapearance meant.

    Then I had some tequila.

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