The media: bells, whistles and flashing lights

Wednesday, January 26, 2000

If you thought that news about the media couldn’t get any more bizarre, you haven’t been paying attention.

First off, the world is beginning to beat a path to the portal of Ananova, who soon will become “your personal newscaster, bringing you breaking news as it happens, and alerting you to specific information you need to know the second it’s available.”

Ananova is described as friendly, “remarkably cool,” “quietly intelligent,” and could be mistaken on the street for Posh Spice or Kylie Minogue or even Deborah Norville.

Even though she isn’t scheduled to begin reading the news until April, Ananova already is an international celebrity. People flock to her Web site, where they are invited to comment on her looks and personality traits. Her handlers promise constant improvement to the evolving newscaster.

There is this one trait that can’t be changed, however. Ananova is not real. She is a computer-animated, a virtual being in the employ of the new-media division of Britain’s Press Association. She comes equipped with a “trans-Atlantic” voice so she can newscast for the whole world.

Ananova may turn out to seem more real than her human counterparts because journalists writing stories for her to read will “tag” the stories with the proper emotions while delivering the news. There is one glitch: Programmers have not been able to give her a reliable sense of humor or irony.

Humor and irony, of course, are absolute necessities these days — not just for the newscasters but for anyone who reads, listens to or watches the news. Especially if the news is about the media.

For example, respected anchor Dan Rather recently conceded that it was a “mistake” for CBS News to be faking the news behind his back, so to speak. The network was exploiting new digital technology to insert fake billboards on news sets, including at least twice on “The CBS Evening News.”

Since last November, the network has pasted the CBS logos on rival NBC’s Jumbotron on Times Square, on the sides of buildings, and even on a passing horse-drawn carriage and the fountain outside the Plaza Hotel.

This technology is so neat and the applications so myriad that Rather’s boss, CBS News President Andrew Heyward, still can’t bring himself to join the anchor in renouncing the practice of replacing reality with virtuality.

It’s a short walk from trifling with reality to downgrading entertainment programming with government-approved messages.

That about sums up a deal between the media and the federal government to push an anti-drug message. Rather than accomplishing that admirable goal, however, the deal turns out to be little more than pelf for propaganda in the public mind. It is a classic example of how nothing can muck up a situation more than having the media and the government in cahoots on the same project.

The goal was simple and sincere: Get the message of the horrors of drug use out to as many people in as many venues as possible by advertising in the media.

In 1997 Congress passed a law appropriating $1 billion for the campaign by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. The idea was for the ONDCP to purchase ads on television and in the print media, with the media in turn providing matching advertising time or space.

But the campaign was launched just as the networks were realizing an advertising bonanza from Internet companies, so network advertising executives weren’t very responsive. That’s when the drug office decided to get creative. Rather than providing the free time or charge 50% less for an ad, the networks would be given credit for airing suitable anti-drug messages in their other programming.

The networks, or course, were delighted, even though such an arrangement might mean submitting scripts for review prior to broadcasting and perhaps even tweaking the scripts a bit to improve the message.

Everything was just fine until investigative reporter Daniel Forbes published a story about the cozy arrangement on There was an understandable outcry. Later reporting revealed that there had been similar arrangements with newspapers and magazines, although not involving the editorial content of the print media.

Initially the drug policy office maintained that there was nothing untoward in all this, but finally the office’s director, Barry McCaffrey, issued a “clarification” of the guidelines. They promised that the office wouldn’t review programming until after it had aired. “In other words,” The Washington Post said in an editorial, “we never did it, and we promise not to do it again.”

So, why the fuss? There are a number of reasons.

Both Congress and the drug-policy office, in their rush to do a good thing, rode roughshod over some very important First Amendment principles. They had every right to buy ad time and space to present their message to the American people. But they danced right up to the constitutional line by virtually requiring the media to buy into the same message, sometimes in undisclosed ways.

Americans for the most part simply are not receptive to the idea of the government using power, money or any other method to compel, coerce or entice the media into propagandizing the public, no matter how good or worthy the cause or the message.

Writers and producers are not exactly fond of the idea of government agencies reviewing their scripts or programs before they are broadcast.

But network executives who bought into this whole thing deserve a lot of the blame for allowing it to happen in the first place. They owe it to those who produce entertainment programs for them to resist such ploys. They owe it to their viewers to disclose such arrangements. They owe it to the First Amendment franchise that allows them to stay in business.

It would be one thing if all these bizarre happenings were passing and anomalous, but the evidence is otherwise. The integrity of the editorial and creative processes seems to be less and less of a concern.

The more the media give in to shady deals or to a fascination with technology’s bells, whistles, and lights, the more their credibility is compromised. The more their credibility is compromised, the less their ability to lead and inform the public.

The bottom line that news and media executives should be watching is that the more they sell out, the less they have to sell.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at