GAO Cites Bush Administration Antidrug Segments for Violations
The Government Accountability Office on Thursday said that the Bush administration violated two federal laws through made-for-television "news segments" about the effects of illicit drug use among young people, the New York Times reports. The segments were similar in form to the White House's video news releases on Medicare that GAO had previously cited (Files, New York Times, 1/7).
GAO in May said that the Bush administration violated federal law through Medicare videos produced to air during local TV news broadcasts that featured actors paid to read HHS-prepared scripts, according to officials at Home Front Communications, which produced the segments. Several of the videos featured President Bush as he signs the Medicare legislation into law. HHS prepared introductions to the segments for local news anchors. GAO determined that the Medicare videos were a form of "covert propaganda" because the government was not identified as the source of the materials.
The GAO report said that the videos were intended for viewers, not news directors. In addition, GAO's decision said that "some news organizations indicated that they misread the label or they mistook the story package as an independent journalist news story." The GAO said that such videos "violated a statute that forbids the use of federal money for propaganda, as well as the Antideficiency Act." Under the act, which prohibits spending in excess of appropriations, violations must be reported to Congress and the president, with a statement of actions taken to prevent any reoccurrences (California Healthline, 5/20/04).
GAO said the new videos, broadcast by nearly 300 television stations and distributed by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, similarly violated the Anti-Deficiency Act and constituted "covert propaganda" because the government was not identified as the source of the materials. The report did not cite the content of the videos but rather the made-for-television "story package format."
GAO said the videos' creators "made it impossible for the targeted viewing audience to ascertain that these stories were produced by the government." GAO's findings do not carry legal force, but the agency's "decisions on federal spending are usually considered authoritative," the Times reports.
The drug control policy office told GAO that it would have been difficult for "a reasonable broadcaster" to misinterpret the videos as news reports. Tom Riley, a spokesperson for the office, said the GAO report made a "mountain out of a molehill" and noted that his office had received congressional authorization to develop anti-drug messages for television, motion pictures and the Internet.
Riley added that the office stopped distributing the videos after GAO's May report on the Medicare segments. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the senior Democrat on the Government Reform Committee who requested the report, said the video segments broke "a fundamental principle of open government" (New York Times, 1/7).