Violent Media for Peace?

I’m writing this dispatch on my way home from Puerto Rico, where Oscar Arias (Nobel laureate and former President of Costa Rica) and Deepak Chopra (doctor and spiritual teacher) are holding their second annual conference of The Alliance for the New Humanity. The conference is about a lot of things – but, from what I can tell, anyway – it’s mostly about launching a new civilization more concerned about peace and sustainable living than the current one.

I was invited to participate on a panel about media strategies and, considering that the list of confirmed participants included everyone from Al Gore to Ricky Martin, figured this would be as good a place as any to spend a sunny weekend with my wife, away from cold New York.

I didn’t realize until I got there that this was to be more of a spiritual conference than an effectual one. Various chanters and healers, meditators and spiritualists gathered before a crowd of 400 paying participants to share optimistic visions of how the “new humanity” would someday overtake the current culture of violence and pollution.

What none of the participants seemed to notice throughout the proceedings, however, were the television cameras aimed occasionally at them and much more frequently at the most famous of the celebrities who showed up. Nor did they notice the giant satellite dish sitting on the asphalt just outside the main conference hall.

These didn’t belong to the press, or even documentary makers, but to a firm actually hired by the conference to publicize its existence throughout the mediaspace, using a little known but increasingly popular public relations tool called the VNR.

The VNR, or Video News Report (orignally, and more honestly, called the Video Press Release), is a complete, pre-packaged news story made by a company or cause, which is beamed to news stations around the world for them to broadcast as if it were one of their own news reports. VNR’s often come in two flavors: one with a newscaster who the news station can pretend is their own, and one with narration and a script that can be re-read by the station’s own local anchor or reporter.

That’s right: on most evenings, if you live in America, your local news will pop in one or more of these tapes – these commercials masquerading as news reports – and never let you know. Watch your local news tonight, and try to spot that report about obesity that seems to lean just a bit too hard on one new medication or diet as the ultimate answer. Or a new “trend” in make-up that revolves around one brand’s product.

VNRs have been used by the pharmaceutical industry to sell new drugs, the oil companies to present themselves as environment-friendly, and even the Bush Whitehouse in their effort to cast a new light on the post-war effort in Iraq. In fact, VNRs are so popular today that it’s becoming increasingly hard to get one on the air without some compelling content or characters. (read: sex, drugs, or famous people)

What makes VNRs ethically questionable, in my opinion, is the lack of disclosure. It’s one thing to buy a television advertisement; it’s another to pass off one’s commercial as reported, balanced news. Local news stations, suffering budget cuts while striving to improve ratings, have little choice but to accept the free, celebrity-rich footage. Hell, all their competitors are doing it.

So, in their effort to create some buzz for their fledgling civilization, the Alliance for the New Humanity decided to keep up with the times, and utilize a form of media that seems destined to be remembered as one of the ways television helped us lose touch with reality. At least I had a chance – a brief one – to explain to them the error of their ways.

The panel on which I participated was unfortunately entitled “Publicity for a New Society: Initiating a Publicity Campaign for Humanity,” and dealt with how to make television advertisements to sell the notions of peace and sustainability. Although I had been at the conference for two days, I was about to be granted just two minutes to say my piece.

I explained that advertisements are themselves violent acts – part of the escalating arms race between public relations and the public – and that “advertising peace” was an oxymoron. Then I asked if any of them knew what that big satellite dish was for (no one did), and proceeded to explain VNRs.

Of course, the VNRs were failing, anyway, I explained. Woody Harrelson and Marissa Tomei – the only participants sexy and famous enough to get one of the conference’s VNRs on the air – were no-shows. So although the satellite was beaming out several VNRs a day, they were not actually getting broadcast. (Even Al Gore’s presence was not enough to get any airtime back on the mainland, since he had just been all over the media with his surprise endorsement of presidential candidate Howard Dean.)

The satellite only served to underscore the hypocrisy of holding an expensive conference at an exotic resort hotel, and talking about sustainability while eating baby veal or (endangered) sea bass and drinking water out of individual-size plastic bottles. When I finished, the moderator asked for twenty seconds of silence, after which my words were all but forgotten and the conversation returned to the great success of “Buenos Dias Day,” through which people around the world spread goodwill through the media, Latin American style.

But the would-be messengers of peace ignore their inconsistencies at their own peril. For just like adding plastic to groundfill while complaining of global warming, it is internally incongruent to preach peace and understanding via corrupted messaging. In fact, if this conference really did want to make the headlines, they would have stood a better chance at raising attention by forcing the hotel in which they stayed to adopt environmentally responsible policies (and then shown them the financial savings), serving organic vegetarian meals, or bringing speakers to the event via that blasted satellite instead of wasting so very many tons of jet fuel – like I am right now.