Conan O’Brien Breaks Some Actual News
A fascinating, and somewhat disturbing, story from the Washington Post yesterday, that Conan O’Brien, of all people, broke on his show a while back. Local TV news stations are buying pre-packaged “instant” news stories, with accompanying script and film footage, and simply reading them on the air as “new” news produced by the local station itself.
It’s akin to syndicating a column in local papers, but instead of each newspaper around the country carrying Maureen Dowd’s weekly column with her byline, they would hypothetically print the same column but each paper would sign it with a different local journalist in order to make it look original to that specific local paper. It would be like bloggers Chris in Paris, Markos Moulitsas, and Marcy Wheeler all actually being the same person: a retired cafeteria worker in Pensacola, Florida.
Here’s Conan’s compilation of numerous stations reporting on the same story, “Is it time for dogs to have a social network of their own?”:
Ingenius and Creepy
The “salty” story was produced by an “affiliate service,” CNN Newsource, and syndicated to dozens of stations around the country. Stations not only get prepackaged footage from such services, but a script that introduces the footage, as well. Stations then “localize” the canned package by having one of their anchors read the one-size-fits-all copy.
Viewers typically have no idea that a seemingly local story has come from a centralized source in New York, Los Angeles or, in this case, Washington. The CNN Newsource story, for example, doesn’t mention CNN Newsource or CNN, its parent company. The reporter on the story simply signed off, “In Washington, I’m Karin Caifa.” (Caifa and CNN Newsource were also behind the widely played story about “social networking” for dogs via a Web site that connects pet owners.)
I’m really not sure what to think. I’m fascinating by the ingenuity of it. But at the same time, a bit creeped out by it. Is it really fake news if it’s a real news story that’s simply been copied? It might be considered plagiarism, but it’s not really “fake” news, it is real news.
Then is it akin to a kid copying a friend’s paper in college? He got permission to copy it. Yet that’s not a defense against plagiarism. Though school is a bit different than the local news – at school you’re earning grades that supposedly show your relative merit. If the local news were to try to win a local Emmy based on the fake story, that might pose similar problems. Then again, in the public eye, all local stations are vying for eyeballs, for “relative merit.” So isn’t the plagiarism of one station unfair as compared to its competitors (though perhaps all are buying the same pre-packaged stories)?
Is it a Financial Necessity in Today’s Market?
Another sympathy I have is that things have been quite tough for the media since the economy collapsed. They’ve been tough for us. A number of papers, and a number of blogs, have gone belly up. And a lot more are on thin ice. I don’t see this consolidation, or thinning out, of the media as a particularly good thing. So anything that brings in more income, to CNN for example, means they have a better chance of hanging around to counter Fox’s lies and disinformation, and that’s a good thing.
Here’s another clip from Conan, this time about gay marriage, “Conan O’Brien may be about to push the envelope on late night television”:
What do you think? Does this amount to nothing more than a white lie? Is it a necessary evil in order for an independent media to survive?