In more honest times we had a more honest word for it. We didn’t call it “fake news,” or a “look alike”. We didn’t call it “spin” or “direct messaging.” We certainly didn’t call it “corporate communications” or “public relations.”
We called it what it was.
It’s a word that cuts through the static and fog like a hot knife through butter. And it’s a term we should not fear to use.
Afterall, what other term more accurately describes a video produced by a political party that cosplays as a television news broadcast?
It’s the best way to describe the new Twitter feed by the Ontario Progressive Conservative party called “Ontario News Now.” It’s a punchy title, the kind of thing a television station might call its primetime news broadcast.
It has only one tweet so far. A “news” item about Premier Doug Ford’s first 30 days in office – posted on July 30 and is designed to look like a news report from a broadcast journalist. And it is paid for by tax dollars.
The “reporter” is one Lyndsey Vanstone, formerly Ford’s executive assistant and now lists her job as “deputy director of communications – PCCS Ontario Government.” Those who followed the provincial election campaign may recognize Vanstone as the “reporter” who pumped out Ford campaign videos using the same format.
But this is not journalism. It is not news of any sort. These videos are to the news what ringette is to hockey. Sure, it looks similar in many respects, but it is a different game entirely.
This is government propaganda made to look like the news to give it an air of legitimacy it would not otherwise have.
Vanstone’s video uses the same structure as a typical evening news hit. It starts off with a pithy opening – in this case, she notes that Ford “is off the races…literally” while featuring photos of the Premier at a race track. This is followed by a narrative about the “news” – in this case, all the things Ford has done in the last 30 days – with carefully selected publicity photos of Ford shaking hands and smiling with political leaders and citizens. And it includes a short clip from an interview to provide context – in this case, a short clip of Ford singing his own praises.
But this is not news at all, despite the efforts to make it look like it is. A proper story about political news would have included commentary from the official opposition for actual context and balance. It would have framed the first month of this government with facts. (Have gas prices ACTUALLY gone down 10 cents a litre at the pumps? Or are Ontario motorists still paying around $1.30 a litre or more. If so why? The video doesn’t challenge Ford’s claim on gas prices or anything else.)
Moreover, news outlets, including TV stations and newspapers, answer not just to readers and viewers, but to broadcast standards and press councils that can be called upon to investigate if someone thinks the journalists got it wrong. This production answers to a political party. The difference is not trivial.
This video is scripted to put Ford in the best possible light completely unchallenged. Even Vanstone’s opening betrays the intent. She talks about what Ford has done since his “inauguration.” It is a very curious word to use given that the Premier is not inaugurated at all. In Canada we don’t have inaugurations because we don’t have presidents. We don’t even elect our premiers or prime ministers directly. We elect political parties and the leader of the party that has the most seats in the house becomes the prime minister or premier – literally the first among ministers.
So why say “inauguration”? A slip of the tongue from a political communications person who should know that the premier is sworn in along with the rest of the winning party in a fairly muted ceremony? Maybe. Or is it used deliberately to provide an air of authority, pomp and circumstance that no premier actually has? After all, every Canadian knows what a big deal the inauguration of the US President is, and how much power and influence the holder of that office has. It’s a cheap and easy way to imply that Premier Ford wields the power of the person living in the White House.
So why bother making these videos look like the news at all? It’s not just about bypassing the news media to talk “directly” to the people, although that is the usual talking point from the spin doctors. It is about borrowing the legitimacy of news agencies to gives propaganda credibility it can’t get any other way.
For all the griping politicians do these days about “fake news,” they know people still turn to news outlets as trusted sources of information. A press release from a political party or a speech by a politician could be dismissed by the public. Indeed, those press releases and speeches are fact-checked regularly by journalists who don’t let statements by governments go unchallenged.
But if it looks like the news, and it sounds like news, maybe enough people will believe it is the news even though it isn’t.
Ford isn’t the first politician to do this. The Liberals cranked out news-like videos in 2007, although they lacked the polish of Vanstone’s propaganda. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office created videos called 24/Seven (borrowing from the popular 24/7 sports features created by HBO) that didn’t get much traction. It was only a matter of time before someone in some political party perfected the fake news formula. If it wasn’t Ford’s campaign, it would have been another party soon enough.
The Ontario PCs claim the videos work wonders. Ford’s campaign manager Kory Teneycke, formerly of the Sun News Network, claimed Vanstone’s campaign videos supplanted actual news broadcasts in target ridings.
“We were able to produce our own content and we were able to beam that directly into the feed of target voters,” Teneycke said. “If you were a target voter in a target riding you were getting your news from us if you were at all accessible to us.”
Getting your “news” from a political campaign or government is the very definition propaganda. And if Teneycke is right and broadcasting the news that isn’t news works, you can bet other political parties will follow his example, further blurring the lines between what is real and what isn’t.
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