MILD-MANNERED REPORTER

George W. Bush out to be broadcast journalism's next Ted Baxter



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He may look like just a mild-mannered reporter, but Tom Henderson learned everything he knows about journalism from reading Superman comics. Check out the wisdom of Clark Kent and Lois Lane at the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture at www.ijpc.org.

George W. Bush just started a new job -- television news producer.

Strange. I thought he hated journalists. He certainly avoids them. His father held more than 60 press conferences by this point in his administration. You can count Dubya's press conferences on two hands and still have one finger left over.

(I won't tell you which one.)

Dubya also likes to give reporters clever nicknames -- usually involving parts of the body. No offense, he says.

None taken.

Lots of people call us names. We like to think we are mature enough to take it. And when it comes to the president, we have only this to say. You are rubber. We are glue. Everything you say bounces off us and sticks to you.

Deep in his heart, however, we know he loves us. Even our bad apples.

He may decry sleazy, unscrupulous journalists who distort the truth to serve their own devious ends.

But ultimately, he wants to be one of them.

His campaign staff faked a news story. Yep. Move over Jayson Blair. Let George W. Bush show you a master at work.

Bush's action news team did some hard-hitting investigative reporting and unearthed the startling fact that the president is one peach of a guy.

This crack team of government stooges put together a "video press release" long on flummery and short on facts. In other words, fairly indistinguishable from most television news coverage.

So many television stations -- with no real news to report while "Friends" is in reruns -- swallowed the bait. They took the press release (i.e. fake story) and threw it on the air like good little lap dogs.

(Hmmm. Maybe some of those anatomically explicit nicknames are justified.)

"The dissemination and uncritical use of public relations videos masquerading as legitimate news coverage mislead the public and undermine the credibility of journalists," says a statement released by the national headquarters of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Gee, you think?

Where would the president get the idea he could win votes by producing fake news coverage? Maybe it was that special report where Danny Bonaduce interviews the Juice Man for two hours.

This all started years ago. Remember how Orson Welles panicked America by telling radio listeners that drooling, disgusting creatures from another planet were coming to take over our world?

We should have listened. Now they're producing video press releases.

Here at the Itemizer-Observer, we get non-video press releases all the time. In fact, this just in. And I kid you not. Just as I finished the first sentence in this paragraph, a guy called me to ask if I received his press release.

Apparently, it included free tortillas.

He asked me if that was something I would consider running in the paper. I told him definitely not. The tortillas would probably break up as they ran through the press.

More likely, I would eat the tortillas, wipe my mouth with the press release and toss the leavings in the recycle bin. Now if the president wants to send me some free tortillas and a press release, far be it from me to discourage him.

However, I can guarantee the press release will never see print. Politicians and other salesmen send us press releases on a daily basis.

To be honest, we run bits and pieces of them from time to time. But a press release, as I am fond of telling reporters, is the beginning of wisdom but never the end.

We make phone calls. We check out the facts. We make more phone calls. Then we check out the facts again. Even the members of the local knitting league rarely see their press release in the paper exactly as they presented it.

Shame on those lazy [anatomically explicit nicknames] in television news. With Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez's break up still less than two months old, they have plenty of stories to fill the nightly news without resorting to canned propaganda.

The spot only runs two minutes. What? Britney Spears not date anyone in the past 24 hours? No dancing chickens in Montana? There is always real news. You just have to look for it.

Maybe television journalists could report on how the president of the United States distributes fake news stories in an underhanded attempt to distort the facts and manipulate the public.

Of course, where would they find evidence to back up such a charge?

People blast the press for being too liberal, too conservative or too sensationalistic. Wrong. You want to know the problem with the press? We're stupid.

We too often eat exactly what we are fed from suits with titles. That happens at every level of the profession. However, there is a difference between a press release from the local quilting league and one from the White House.

One of them should be greeted with more than a healthy dose of skepticism.

The president got one fact right -- at least as it pertains to our blow-dried colleagues on television. He says journalists lack credibility.

Sad but true in many cases, Mr. President.

On the other hand, we are rubber and you are glue...

(Tom Henderson is the managing editor of the Itemizer-Observer and president of the Oregon chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.)



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