We're long past the day when people regarded their news source as the ultimate authority on any issue — Fox News adherents aside — but we have been trained to see the image of the news desk on television or the familiar type and column style in print as indicators of authenticity, at least to some degree.
Knowing that, I wasn't surprised to read a piece on the Washington Post website last week by Philip Bump detailing how the National Republican Congressional Committee is repurposing its own press releases on fake news sites it has put up in areas of the country where they are trying to defeat Democratic opponents.
The websites are made to look like legitimate news sites, Bump says, and he references a National Journal report that says "the NRCC is buying ads on Google for people searching for Democratic candidates to redirect them to these fake news sites."
Take that all you naysayers who think the media have no credibility.
A Gallup Poll last year, in fact, put journalists just above members of Congress, lawyers and car salespeople when asked about "honesty and ethical standards."
Nurses, pharmacists and grade school teachers topped the list, in that order.
That's a far cry from the days when people tuned in each night to their network newscast to listen to icons such as Walter Cronkite, who anchored the "CBS Evening News" desk from April 16, 1962, until he retired March 6, 1981, signing off with his trademark "And that's the way it was" closing.
When Cronkite said in his Feb. 27, 1968, "Report From Vietnam" that the war was a "stalemate" and unwinnable, the response from President Lyndon Johnson, reportedly, was "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country."
Today, of course, we get news from a variety of outlets in multiple formats, from smartphones to tablets or desktop computers, standard print or TV, but even though many people complain about media biases, we are still conditioned to pay attention, and we're more apt to believe something that comes with the trappings of traditional news.
That's why on print pages you sometimes see advertisers who mimic the type face and style of articles in their ads, trying to make them look like news. It is why some businesses try to make their TV commercials look like they are "news" shows, complete with a fake anchor talking about the benefits of the product with a representative of the company. And now, apparently, it is why some people think that making their websites look like news sites offers them additional credibility.
It's like when you are driving down the road and the traffic light ahead turns red. Unless you are just a beginning driver, you probably don't think "oh gee, I have to stop because it is the law." Instead, you've just been doing it so long that when you see that red light your foot automatically goes to the brake. When you see the trappings of legitimate print, TV or online media, your brain automatically gives it more credibility.
Bump, citing the National Journal article, noted that NRCC Communications Director Andrea Bozek told the National Journal's Shane Goldmacher, "We believe this is the most effective way to present information to leave a lasting impact on voters."
Beyond the obvious observation that if the information you are presenting is valid and defensible, such a tactic would be unnecessary, there is the question, posed by Bump, as to whether the practice is ethical.
The answer to that is a resounding no. But ethics is not something this group of politicians (regardless of party) is known for. Remember the Gallup poll? Members of Congress ranked above only lobbyists as the least ethical.
Perhaps in their next rendition they can get a teacher, or better yet a pharmacist, to be their spokesperson. That would certainly move them up higher on the credibility list, far beyond the journalists who are mired in the middle of the pack.
Or they could just do what some companies have been doing for years and hire an actor to play the role of a professional, as in those "I'm not a doctor, but I do play one on TV, so you should buy our antacid to settle that upset stomach" ads.
For consumers, whether you are ingesting ads for products or services or whether you are looking at the latest "news" involving political campaigns, the lesson to be learned is to question everything. A pile of cow droppings may look better in a colorful package with a big red bow, but unwrapped, it's still just a box of cow dung.
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Jim Lee is the Carroll County Times' editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.