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Senate Debates Government

May 13, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


KAREN RYAN, ad sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services: Medicare officials emphasize that no one will be forced to sign up for any of the new benefits.

JEFFREY BROWN: This looks and sounds like a real news story.

KAREN RYAN, ad sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services: I’m Karen Ryan reporting.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it aired on newscasts in dozens of local markets around the nation.

But it’s actually a government-produced video news release, a VNR.

This one, about proposed changes to Medicare, made no mention of ongoing opposition to such moves, nor did it reveal its source: The Department of Health and Human Services.

The narrator is actually a former reporter, Karen Ryan, now in public relations, who was paid by the government. The issue of VNRs is part of a larger controversy over attempts by the Bush administration to get out its message, including recent disclosures that journalists and commentators have accepted government money to promote initiatives.

Just this week, a new case was disclosed involving a freelance writer being paid by the Department of Agriculture to promote conservation programs.

Last week, Congress passed a temporary measure calling on government agencies to clearly label its news releases somewhere within the video.

Yesterday, the Senate Commerce Committee explored a more permanent Democrat sponsored measure that would require a label throughout the entire video.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass.: The viewing public is being mislead, and we are engaging in official propaganda.

The White House has, frankly, attempted to split hairs with this complicated legal interpretation that says to the agencies, “Go ahead and continue to deceive the public, and you can continue to deceive broadcasters, and you can continue to produce false news stories.” Well, it’s just not right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Democrats cited this VNR produced by the Department of Education in support of its No Child Left Behind initiative.

KAREN RYAN, ad sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services: This is a program that gets an A-plus. In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty federal agencies have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years; these initiatives continue a practice of government spending on private public relations efforts that, under the Bush administration, has jumped 128 percent since the last year of the Clinton presidency, according to House Democrats.

In March, the president defended the practice and said it should be up to the media outlets to disclose the source of their reports.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I think it would be helpful if local stations then disclosed to their viewers that that was based upon a factual report and they chose to use it. But evidently, in some cases, that’s not the case, so anyway. There’s a procedure that we’re going to follow, and the local stations — if there’s a deep concern about that — ought to tell their viewers what they’re watching.

JEFFREY BROWN: The issue has also stirred debate within the broadcast industry. Some local news directors say they use VNRs at times to offer viewers stories they wouldn’t otherwise be able to cover.

At yesterday’s hearing, Barbara Cochran of the Radio-Television News Directors Association said better guidelines are needed. But she said the government should not dictate how the disclosure is done.

BARBARA COCHRAN: I think what we’re concerned about is the specific prescription as it appears in the bill, because we think it limits the editorial decisions, if you like — just the look of how that disclaimer or that disclosure will appear on the air.

We think that how that looks on the air should be in the hands of the people producing the news.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, a number of government agencies have weighed in.

Last month, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that the onus is on television broadcasters to disclose to viewers the origin of VNRs produced by the government or by corporations. It set up a public comment period on its order to last through mid-July. FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein:

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: It’s very important that the public know if the government is behind something. In the case of political or controversial programming, of course, it’s already required to be disclosed.

But the problem is that, if we don’t have this rule in place in advance, that there’s a judgment call as to whether or not something is political or controversial, then something could air, and then complaints could arise, and, subsequently, we could find that it should’ve been disclosed, but it wasn’t. But at that point, it’s already been basically run on the air, and the people have seen it and it’s too late to take that harm back.

JEFFREY BROWN: In February, David Walker, the head of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), wrote that VNRs violate legal provisions that ban “covert propaganda.”

The Justice Department refuted that, saying the so-called covert propaganda prohibition does not apply “where there is no advocacy of a particular viewpoint.”

KAREN RYAN, ad sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services: Study after study shows that kids who learn about the risk of drugs from their parents or caregivers are far less likely to use them.

JEFFREY BROWN: One question, then, at yesterday’s hearing: What exactly counts as “advocacy?” Susan Poling of the GAO:

SUSAN POLING: We concluded that production and distribution of prepackaged news stories that conceal the agency’s role in producing the story was covert propaganda and, therefore, violated the prohibition on the use of appropriated funds for publicity or propaganda.

JEFFREY BROWN: The conflicting sets of opinion on Capitol Hill in the administration and in the news media led committee Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska to ask Democrats for refinements of their bill. Those will be considered later this summer after the FCC comment period comes to an end.