Fact Or Fiction?  Television News, News Magazines and Primetime Dramas

© Rene A. Henry


We live today in an information overload society.  The American public is saturated with information from the media and the Internet.  And, it is getting harder and harder to separate fact from fiction. 


When is the news the news?  Can you always believe the report or exposé you see on a television magazine show?  Are A60 Minutes,” ADateline,” A20/20” and other programs completely unbiased?  All have been sued for libel.


Issues-oriented organizations involved with the environment, abortion, healthcare, foreign or domestic policy and other sensitive and controversial issues are looking to Hollywood to help tell their story.  Primetime drama and comedy programs have become a new editorial forum where the producers, directors, writers and even actors advocate their own issues.


Screenwriters are taking current news events and issues and quickly dramatizing them into “Boston Legal,” AWest Wing,” A JAG,” any of the “Law & Order,” series and other popular programs.  Jay Leno even took a Katie Couric interview with the wife of Enron’s Ken Lay on AThe Today Show” and edited it so he (Leno) became the interviewer.  The result was an altogether new version of what Mrs. Lay actually said or meant.  Roger Ailes, chairman of Fox News, recently observed that there are many people today who don=t think there is much difference between news and comedy.


More people may be watching primetime series than the evening news.  According to Hank Rieger, former president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, evening news viewers can range from an average of 11 to 16 million depending on the network.  There is a comparable audience range for television news magazines.  However, more than 17 million people average watching AWest Wing” and ALaw & Order.”


If questioned, would a viewer be more apt to recall the controversy regarding U.S. military policy on female dress requirements in Saudi Arabia according to how it was reported on the news or magazine programs that featured Lt. Col. Martha McSally?  Or how the issue was dramatized on AJAG?”


Congressman Gary Condit=s wife, Carolyn, demanded an apology from the producers of ALaw & Order” following an episode about a politician and a missing aide.  The producers said the show was fictional.  She lost, as did her husband in his re-election bid.  One of the first episodes of AFirst Monday” (a drama series about the U.S. Supreme Court that never made it through its first season) dealt with the pro-life, pro-choice, Roe v. Wade controversy. 


A AWest Wing” storyline on global warming mirrored the Clinton-Gore environmental policy.  Another episode touted the Clean Air Act and its importance as related to asthma, breathing and lung diseases. Yet, AThe Practice” attacked EPA in one of its programs for not moving quickly to protect children from arsenic leeching from wood playground equipment


Knowing the power of television, following 9/11, then-White House Advisor Mark McKinnon met with industry leaders and asked them to reflect President Bush=s message of reassuring children and promoting tolerance in storylines.


The military armed forces have long recognized the influence of television and staffed offices in the Los Angeles area to work with Hollywood to get the best possible exposure for their respective branch of service.


Add to this the fact that companies seek to place their commercial products on primetime television programs and in feature films.  A few seconds of exposure on a popular drama or comedy series can be worth as much as $500,000 or more based on the cost of a 30-second commercial...


When actors drink Fiji Water or Perrier on “Joey,” “Will & Grace,” “Scrubs” and other programs, it was through product placement.  There are two competitive publishers of legal books whose products have appeared on “Boston Legal,” “JAG,” and other series.  Ford and Coca-Cola are even producing their own programs to insure exposure for their products. 


Ford Motor Company products were placed by Showcase International in 26 of the top 27 shows that use cars, according to Richard Briggs, Showcase senior managing director.  The firm also placed T-Birds and Mustangs in “Spiderman.”


The degree of exposure varies by network.  Each has its own regulations.  The FCC=s standards and practices do not allow cash transactions for product placement because it would be considered paid advertising.  Companies provide the products free in exchange for a few seconds of exposure.


Feature films such as “A Civil Action” and “Erin Brockovitch have a life long after running in theaters -- in primetime, pay-for-view and a multitude of cable television channels. “Overload,” the only Arthur Hailey novel not made into a feature film or mini-series, condemned a fictional public utility.  Using a controlled media production company as a front, a public utility acquired the rights to “Overload” and promptly shelved it.


Just as important as getting a product hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of exposure, organizations with critical issues believe that they must build Hollywood relationships for their special interests.  What=s next?  Stories on religious misdeeds, airport security, oil drilling in Alaska, or price fixing at Sotheby=s?  Or stories similar to Enron, Tyco, WorldCom and Arthur Andersen?


With so much information coming at you from different directions, it is important to know where you obtained specific information.  Otherwise, fiction can become fact.  Even an honest mistake or typographical error can become Afact” if it is not corrected and it is repeated over and over.


Walter Cronkite, where are you when we need you?