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Mother’s Day: A Great Hook for Fake News

dfarsettas Icon Posted by Diane Farsetta

May 11th, 2007

For a while now, Jenn has encouraged me to write on this blog about fake news, which is a major focus of my work at the Center for Media and Democracy.

So, I’ve pondered how to discuss fake news from an overtly feminist perspective — even though (as Jenn asserts and I agree) all media issues involve and are of interest to women. And I’ve come up with some pretty good feminist critiques of fake news, if I do say so myself.

For instance, fake news often features perky women “lifestyle experts,” “Mom experts,” or “tech chicks” (really, I’m not making those titles up). Fake news product pitches are frequently directed at women, who do much of the shopping for their households. And fake news displaces real news, replacing journalists with publicists, squeezing neighbors off the airwaves, and marginalizing the issues most important to local communities.

As it turns out, I’m just going to mention those points, and focus on fake news and Mother’s Day.

First, I need to define my terms. “Fake news” is when PR people act like or appear as journalists, in order to insert persuasive messages into news media. The dominant form of fake news is the video news release (VNR). VNRs are sponsored video segments designed to mimic television news reports. All too often, TV stations air VNRs during their news programming, with nary a word or label to alert viewers. So, that health news segment about the great new flu vaccine? There’s a good chance it was funded by GlaxoSmithKline and produced by the drug company’s PR firm.

While perusing PR firm websites to see what fake news was going out this week, I kept coming across Mother’s Day-themed segments. That’s not surprising. Valentine’s Day is another big fake news day, as are Thanksgiving and Halloween and marketer-defined periods like “summer driving time” or “barbecue season.”

But the Mother’s Day fake news really bothered me — maybe because, thanks to great groups like Mothers Acting Up and Code Pink, I’ve been thinking of Mother’s Day as a day for both family bonding and peace activism. And then I came across a Mother’s Day-themed VNR from a defense contractor.

It’s titled “Mother’s Day 2007: The Stay-in-the-Car Mom Generation is Here,” and was funded by Honeywell, a corporate behemoth that makes everything from household cleaning products to “sophisticated electronic components … for computers operating in technically advanced military and commercial aerospace conditions.” The VNR features “Mom expert” Stacy DeBroff, who recommends Honeywell’s “Blink” car wipes for busy Moms chauffeuring messy kids around. Ick.

There’s also a Procter & Gamble VNR that uses Mother’s Day to sell Vicks products. How, you ask? The VNR features “celebrity stylist” Aly Scott, who says, “Vicks Baby Rub provides a soothing way to give your baby a massage, relax and calm both of you, and making an easier way for you to bond with your child.” The accompanying press release is titled, “Make Every Day Mother’s Day.” That deserves a mentholated ick.

Then there’s “Mother’s Day Flowers Do’s and Don’ts for Dads,” a lovely VNR chock-full of gender stereotypes, which aims to sell flowers and promote the FlowrMD website.

Lastly, there’s an audio news release — basically, a VNR for radio news — that promotes a non-profit organization, the Ploughshares Fund. Titled “Bringing Mother’s Day Back to Its Roots,” the segment informs listeners that Julia Ward Howe founded Mother’s Day as “a plea for peace.”

I can’t decide — is fake news that I agree with more or less upsetting? (How should progressive groups engage media and get their message out without compromising their ideals? It might not surprise you that I’ve written about that, after attending a progressive PR conference.)

Either way, I wish you a Happy Mother’s Day. Get out into the streets to call for peace, and stay away from PR-infiltrated corporate news.

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