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Fake News and Yo-Yos

March 17th, 2005 · No Comments

This is a story about yo-yos, the children’s toy and other kinds.

First, the children’s toy. In February, the world record holder of most yo-yo tricks in a minute, Hans Van Den Elzen, broke his own record at an exhibition in a New York City toy store.

This would probably not be big news, except for the fact that a) a company called Medialink promoted this story with text, photos, and video made available to local news stations around the country, and b) the toymaker Hasbro – which not coincidentally makes yo-yos – paid Medialink a lot of money to make this yo-yo demonstration big news.

According to Video Monitoring Services of America, which tracks local television news stories, the Hasbro-funded yo-yo demonstration—Van Den Elzen spinning tricks in front of multiple logos for the new Hasbro line of yo-yos—ended up in the news in at least six major cities: St. Louis, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Boston, and Greensboro, North Carolina. The fake news even ended up as “real” news on a children’s web site,

Medialink, a $44-million business headquartered in New York City, specializes in video news releases (VNRs), a form of public relations that they pioneered 1986. As Medialink boasted in its 2003 Annual Report, “Whether the situation calls for . . . an ongoing campaign to introduce a new consumer product or defeat proposed legislation, Medialink is an integral member of the client’s strategy team.”

So, the yo-yo story isn’t really news – it’s an infomercial placed for Hasbro by Medialink, designed to look just like a television news report. These fake reports go to local TV stations everywhere via news services such as Fox NewsEdge, CNN Newsource, and NBC News Channel, which get paid to distribute the VNRs.

Oftentimes, these VNRs aren’t labeled as company-sponsored material, so local affiliates mistakenly treat it as real news. Or, local affiliates are just plain understaffed or sloppy, and either take the VNRs as is, or repackage them.

A story about the latest Miramax movie? A report on items in the pricey holiday gift catalog at Neiman Marcus? Hype about a new little pill from the pharmaceutical industry? All of these kinds of stories can be traced back to Medialink, or its many competitors, who are making their clients’ marketing strategies today’s news.

Medialink even goes one step further, and tracks the number of “plays” their clients’ VNRs get on television stations in the U.S. and around the world. This is the clients’ return on investment.

The obvious question might be, why don’t Hasbro, Miramax, Neiman Marcus, and other companies spend their money on advertising instead? The answer—and there is an unfortunate irony in this—is that the news has more credibility.

And that makes us – the audience – the other yo-yos. We’re played by schemes to disguise marketing as news. Now, as revealed in reports in the New York Times and elsewhere, we can count our own federal government as another schemer who is playing us, too.

During the first four years of George W. Bush’s administration, $254 million in taxpayer’s dollars was spent on public relations contracts. They didn’t invent government propaganda, but have taken it to a new level, spending almost double the previous four years under Clinton. A good part of this was for VNRs, sometimes with public relations officials posing as reporters, emanating from at least 20 different agencies, promoting the Bush agenda on issues such as drug enforcement, the Medicare prescription drug law, post-invasion Iraq, military prison guard training, and agriculture programs.

This production of “good news” from the Bush administration makes the White House happy, but has one little problem. It’s illegal.

As Congress’s General Accounting Office recently noted, the federal government can’t use covert propaganda – that is, VNRs that don’t identify themselves as the work of government agencies in the video. In fact, the GAO has issued three opinions on the illegality of such VNRs, and notified the White House to stop using them. The Bush administration told its federal agencies to ignore the GAO, effectively thumbing its nose at Congress’s investigative arm.

So, here we are with our own government illegally spending millions of our tax dollars to sway our own public opinion with propaganda disguised as news. Want to learn more? See to see what you can do.

In my next column, I’ll talk about the widespread distribution of VNRs and how Eastern Iowa television news directors respond to them.

Tags: Journalism Ethics · Public Relations

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