Administration, Critics Debate Value of Video News Releases

Media watchdogs decrying "fake news" segments that are actually packages produced and distributed by the Bush administration to promote government programs are demanding the Federal Communications Commission (search) take a stand against the practice.

They are joined by some members of Congress and other groups who have asked the FCC to investigate whether the government and broadcasters are violating regulations by producing and airing what they say are deceptive public relations tools funded with taxpayer dollars.

"It's essentially propaganda, it's so-called news that is promoting White House policies and is provided by the government and is not being labeled as such," said Josh Silver, a spokesman for Free Press (search), a watchdog group that recently helped to collect 40,000 signatures on a petition calling on the FCC, Congress and the broadcasters to "stop fake news."

"This is an outrage to liberals and conservatives alike," Silver said, adding that their petition asks the FCC to conduct an investigation into the use of video news releases (search).

VNRs have gotten publicity over the last few months, particularly after it was reported that the State Department had been using them to promote activities in Afghanistan and Iraq. An episode of the "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" last week highlighted one such clip, in which a group of Iraqis chanted pro-American slogans and expressed their appreciation for President Bush.

In the last year, the Government Accountability Office (search) ruled VNR campaigns by both the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Drug Control Policy violated a law that says that public money cannot fund domestic propaganda.

The Bush administration, which has produced hundreds of VNRs in the last four years, according to experts, recently issued a memo to its agencies disagreeing with the GAO's assessment and declaring that it will not stop producing them.

Supporters say VNRs have been used since movies and television were invented to inform the public and sell products. It is up to broadcasters to clearly disclose on air the origin of their segments. They add that the government is just doing its job by finding engaging ways to inform the public.

But critics say the VNR controversy, coupled with recent revelations that conservative commentators Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher received payments from the departments of Education and Health and Human Services, respectively, to push Bush administration policy through their media outlets, has created the impression that the White House wants to influence the news through deception.

What Are VNRs?

VNRs incorporate video footage and hired "reporters" who conduct realistic interviews and narration into complete segments distributed to news agencies. The hired reporters in the segments do not always introduce themselves as representing a government agency and the release plays through as a typical news story, fitting seamlessly into a television broadcast with little need for editing.

"This, in my mind, is what the government is supposed to do," in its responsibility to inform the public, said Laurence Moskowitz, CEO and president of Medialink Worldwide (search), one of the leading producers and distributors of VNRs in the world, counting as its clients both government agencies and corporations.

"If the government doesn't use VNR as a tool, I believe they would be negligent," he added.

But real problems occur when stations do not identify the source of the material when it airs, giving the impression that the work is theirs, said Bob Priddy, chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (search) and news director for Missourinet, a statewide commercial radio network.

"If people take canned material, whether it's from a government agency or anywhere else, and they don't tell their audience who or where it is coming from, they are lying to their consumer," said Priddy, who noted that failing to attribute on-air material as coming from an outside source is a violation of RTNDA's ethical code.

But in today's competitive and resource-hungry local television news industry, VNRs are frequently thrown on the air unedited and the government knows it, say critics. And since they are fed from the parent network, which gets the segments typically through sources like Medialink or other public relations firms hired by federal agencies, sometimes the origin of the package gets lost in translation.

"They are frequently aired with no labeling and identification," said John Stauber, head of the Center for Media and Democracy (search), which has been monitoring VNRs since 1993. "What the journalists are doing is blatant plagiarism."

"It's propaganda no matter how you cut it," said Priddy. "The blame starts with the people who are producing these things as an intent of manipulating the audience. There is a lack of basic honesty from the start."

The Role of Government

But not everyone thinks VNRs are deceptive advertising. Bush told reporters this month that he believed VNRs are a time-tested way for the government to put out factual information about current programs and initiatives and he doesn't see anything "covert" about it.

"This has been a longstanding practice of the federal government to use these types of videos," Bush said. However, "it's important that they be based on the guidelines set out by the Justice Department."

In a March 16 White House briefing, press secretary Scott McClellan said those Justice Department guidelines require VNRs to be factual and not cross the line into advocacy. News directors also have to know that the material is coming from the government.

"[VNRs] are informative and they follow the law," said HHS spokesman Bill Pierce, who compared VNRs to printed press releases. "I don't know how many we do but we do them."

Moskowitz agreed. "For anyone to think that VNRs are any different than written press releases is sorely lacking in perspective," he said, noting that no less than 4,000 VNRs are produced by corporate and government sources each year.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher defended his agency's use of the practice in a March 14 press briefing.

"There are basic facts and material on what's going on in Afghanistan and Iraq or often in the United States, related to important issues," he said. "I wouldn't describe it as propaganda."

Certain members of Congress say they don't believe the status quo is enough. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, sent a letter to the FCC asking the agency to look into whether broadcasters who fail to properly disclose the origins of VNRs are violating federal regulations. In February, Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., introduced legislation that would strengthen current anti-propaganda standards.

Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center, a leading conservative media watchdog, said complaints by Democratic lawmakers are based on ulterior motives.

"All of these complaints assume that this was never done in the Clinton administration," Graham said. "I don't remember Ted Kennedy demanding an investigation of government public relations budgets in the Clinton administration and I don't remember the conservatives ever demanding one."

A spokesman with the FCC told that it takes all such letters of inquiry "very seriously," but has not formally opened an investigation into the use of VNRs. However, the FCC is investigating whether the government inappropriately paid radio talk show host and columnist Williams $240,000 to promote the administration's "No Child Left Behind" initiative.

Silver said the deceptive nature of these media campaigns is the most dangerous aspect of the controversy. "We simply need a system in which these so-called video news releases have clear disclosure," he said.