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FCC Warns Broadcasters to Identify Source of Video News Releases

Last year, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy came under fire for a series of videos in which a narrator, sometimes identified as “Karen Ryan,” said she was “reporting” on the office’s activities. Additionally, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services produced video news releases, or VNRs, also narrated by “Karen Ryan,” praising the Bush administration’s changes to Medicare, the Associated Press reported.

The General Accountability Office, the research arm for Congress, in February investigated the matter and determined that the prepackaged news funded by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services constituted “covert propaganda.”

The tapes were offered to local television stations for news programs with suggested scripts on how to introduce the stories. Some stations aired the videos without identifying their government origins.

The Bush administration’s Office of Management and Budget disagreed with the GAO’s finding, though the Office of National Drug Control Policy has since declared it would cease producing VNRs.

The FCC’s two Republican and two Democratic members unanimously issued the notice Wednesday in response to a large number of requests for the agency to examine whether broadcasters using VNRs sponsored by the federal government were fully revealing the source of the material and if they had violated the agency’s rules by not doing so.

“People in this country have a right to know where their news is coming from, but it’s getting almost impossible to know,” FCC Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps said in a statement. “Knowing the source of a story can help viewers and listeners judge its substance.”

The FCC also invited the public to comment through late July on the decades-old sponsorship identification rules and whether any changes should be made to ensure broadcasters identify the origins of VNRs. The agency said it plans to release a report based on those comments and determine whether to take more formal action to amend its existing rules.

Wednesday’s FCC reminder to news outlets did not specify what form the general disclosure must take, only that “a single announcement be made at the time of airing the material.”

The commission said there was even greater obligation for full disclosure if the VNRs deal with political or controversial issues. For such programming longer than five minutes, the disclosures must be announced “both at the beginning and the conclusion of airing the material,” the FCC said.

The FCC warned that it will investigate any case where the rules may have been violated and “take appropriate enforcement action” against those who do not comply with the sponsorship identification rules. Violating the rules could result in a $10,000 fine, one year imprisonment or both.

The commission, however, said its notice did not address “the recent controversy over when or whether the government is permitted to sponsor VNRs,” stressing that issue was beyond its jurisdiction and a matter for Congress to decide.

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