WASHINGTON – The Bush administration has promoted its education law with a video that comes across as a news story but fails to make clear the reporter involved was paid with taxpayer money.
The government used a similar approach this year in promoting the new Medicare (search) law and drew a rebuke from the investigative arm of Congress, which found the videos amounted to propaganda in violation of federal law.
The Education Department also has paid for rankings of newspaper coverage of the No Child Left Behind (search) law, a centerpiece of the president's domestic agenda. Points are awarded for stories that say President Bush and the Republican Party are strong on education, among other factors.
The news ratings also rank individual reporters on how they cover the law, based on the points system set up by Ketchum (search), a public relations firm hired by the government.
The video and documents emerged through a Freedom of Information Act (search) request by People for the American Way (search), a liberal group that contends the department is spending public money on a political agenda. The group sought details on a $700,000 contract Ketchum received in 2003 from the Education Department.
One service the company provided was a video news release geared for television stations. The video includes a news story that features Education Secretary Rod Paige (search) and promotes tutoring now offered under law.
The story ends with the voice of a woman saying, "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting."
It does not identify the government as the source of the report. It also fails to make clear the person purporting to be a reporter was someone hired for the promotional video.
Those are the same features -- including the voice of Karen Ryan -- that were prominent in videos the Health and Human Services Department used to promote the Medicare law and were judged covert propaganda by the Government Accountability Office (search) in May.
The Education Department's video uses "the same exact mode of operation," said Nancy Keenan, education policy director at People for the American Way. The video encourages students to take advantage of tutoring and says that families give the idea an "A-plus."
"It's basically propaganda, not general information about a program," she said. "And it's portraying to the American public, via a video news release, that it's news."
The Education Department says the video was clearly marked as being a product of the agency when it was given to TV stations. Still, since the GAO report came out, the department has stopped using the narration-styled video news releases, spokeswoman Susan Aspey said.
Aspey defended the video as a way to help people understand the law's offer of tutoring. "Frankly, one has to wonder about the motives of those who are against informing parents that they have options," she said.
At least one television station in New York used the package in 2003, substituting its own reporter for the voiceover but following the script and video provided by the department. The department, in turn, put the text of that station's story on its Web site.
Government press offices play a key role in sharing information and pitching story ideas, but sending out videos featuring "pretend" news reports is wrong, said Al Tompkins, who teaches broadcast reporting at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists.
"Let the alert be loud and clear: Don't use this stuff," Tompkins said.
The Public Relations Society of America (search) advises its nearly 20,000 members not to use the word "reporting" in its video news releases if the narrator is not a reporter.
The GAO declined comment on the Education Department's video and its similarities to the Medicare video. Both promote laws that the administration has highlighted during Bush's re-election campaign as successes despite debate about how they are being implemented.
In ranking newspaper coverage of No Child Left Behind, Ketchum developed a 100-point scale. Stories got five points each for positive messages, such as mentions that the law gives choices to parents and holds schools accountable.
Five points also went to stories that send a message that "The Bush Administration/the GOP is committed to education."
Stories lost five points for negative messages, including claims that the law is not adequately funded or is too tough on states.
The news review for the department also rated education reporters, giving higher scores to their stories if they were deemed positive.
"The government should spend money that benefits the people. How did this benefit the people?" Tompkins said about the ratings of reporters.
In one period, for example, Ketchum rated reporters at USA Today and at newspapers in Atlanta; Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Harrisburg, Pa.; Louisville, Ky.; Portland, Ore.; Minneapolis; and Salt Lake City.
Asked if the ratings influenced how the department treats certain reporters, Aspey said: "We treat all reporters fairly, because that's our job."