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In his recent book “Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires,” National Public Radio media correspondent David Folkenflik describes, in no-holds-barred detail, how Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch built his company News Corp “from a small paper in Adelaide, Australia, into a multimedia empire.”
Among the details of scandals and corporate infighting is a revelation that’s gotten some people’s backs up: that the Fox News PR department actually hired people to go on the Internet
— on blogs, message boards and other public outlets — and “post pro-Fox rants” on websites.
“One former staffer,” Folkenflik writes, “recalled using 20 different aliases to post pro-Fox rants. Another had 100.” They were provided various technological work-arounds to disguise the fact that their pro-Fox commentary was coming from within online accounts associated with Fox itself.
When I read this, I immediately thought two things: (1) Is “David Folkenflik” not the coolest name ever? And (2) wait, you mean I can’t trust the rantings of anonymous strangers on Internet comment boards to be the real thing?
I’m shocked; shocked, I tell you.
It is a striking phenomenon that you notice in online discussions: Make some mention of Fox News’ decided rightward slant and obvious bias, and someone will immediately and vigorously leap to their defense, usually by attacking MSNBC (on the often erroneous assumption that anyone who regards Fox as nakedly partisan must be a huge MSNBC fan).
You never see that sort of passionate defense of CNN, CBS, et al., and you rarely see it of MSNBC. It had not occurred to me it could be the result of paid shills. The technique is called “sock puppetry”: pretending to be someone you’re not to bolster a particular point of view or promote a product. It’s a well-known tactic in PR and marketing.
During the dot-com boom of the 1990s, for example, speculators developed a technique called “pump and dump”: anonymously going on influential stock trading message boards to tout a “great, underrated” stock (which the pumper, of course, owned a lot of), driving up the price, then selling it by the bushel basket when it peaked.
More recently, a “sock puppetry” scandal broke out in the publishing world last year when it was revealed that British thriller author RJ Ellory was creating aliases with which to go online and post not just glowing reviews of his own books, but nasty “one-star” reviews on Amazon and other book sites trashing authors with whom he felt he was in competition.
Ellory later apologized, but another Brit author, Stephen Leather, defiantly announced that he’d go online under his own name and under various other names and various other characters. “You build this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself,” adding that everyone else does it too. (For the record, I haven’t, and hope I never will.)
Sound crazy? To paraphrase “Chinatown”: Forget about it, Jake. It’s the Internet. What probably surprises some people about the Folkenflik revelations is that a news network (as opposed to a writer trying to flog his own work to a jaded public) is using fake identities and deception to try to promote or defend its brand.
But it really shouldn’t. Not just because it’s Fox News, but because televised news in general is becoming less and less about excellence in reporting, and more and more about marketing and branding, stars and image. Fox is just better at it.
Take, for example, the set — or, as they call it, the “news deck”
— that Fox reporter Shepard Smith recently revealed to the public for his show. There are 55-inch touchscreens that can be “put on the air at a moment’s notice”! A 38-foot-long “video wall” upon which Smith can move and shuffle images with what looks like a Wii controller on steroids!
The whole thing looks like Starfleet Central Control. It makes CNN’s absurd election-night coverage, which featured correspondents “beaming in” with a blue haze around them like the Princess Leia hologram in the first “Star Wars” movie, look downright puny.
Which is entirely the point. News isn’t news anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time. It’s what someone long ago dubbed “infotainment.” That’s why so many “analysis” shows are nothing but people yelling crazy, inflammatory crap at each other, and why most reportage of “breaking stories” is a steady stream of rumor, supposition and plain just making stuff up.
News is a commodity, a product, and it’s being marketed like one, with the various sources targeting their various demographics and all the stops — including online sock puppetry — pulled out to sell the product.
Whether the product is all sizzle and no steak is not their concern.