GAO Reopens Investigation of Medicare Advertising Campaign
The General Accounting Office on Monday announced that it has reopened its probe into the legality of a government-sponsored advertising campaign to promote the new Medicare law, after discovering that HHS has been distributing to local television news stations ready-made segments about the legislation, Roll Call reports. The videos may violate a federal law against "covert propaganda" produced by the government (Pierce, Roll Call, 3/16). The video news releases feature actors paid to read government-prepared scripts, according to officials at Home Front Communications, which produced the videos. Several of the videos feature President Bush receiving a standing ovation as he signed the bill into law. HHS also prepared introductions to the segments for local news anchors (California Healthline, 3/15). As of Feb. 12, all or parts of the videos had aired 53 times on 40 stations in 33 media markets, according to the Los Angeles Times (Kemper, Los Angeles Times, 3/16). GAO officials last month became aware of the HHS-produced television news segments while examining the legality of federally funded fliers and advertisements publicizing the Medicare law. GAO determined the campaign is legal despite "notable omissions and other weaknesses" (California Healthline, 3/15). GAO spokesperson Jeff Nelligan said the agency would seek more information from HHS on the videos and "evaluate this information and the propriety of using appropriated funds to support these activities" (Roll Call, 3/16). The administration has disclosed that it paid more than $22 million for the flier and TV ads. Bill Pierce, spokesperson for HHS, said that he is unaware of how much money was spent to produce and distribute the videos.
Six Democratic senators on Monday sent a letter to TV network executives urging them to dissuade their affiliates from using the video news releases in news broadcasts because the videos do not reveal that they were produced by the government, the Times reports. "It is critical to the credibility of an independent news media that covert government propaganda be rejected for use by news organizations," the letter states (Los Angeles Times, 3/16). The letter also says the videos are "designed to influence local news stations to run stories complimentary of the new Medicare law" (Roll Call, 3/16). According to Pierce, HHS officials "did identify [them]selves when [they] pitched it" to news programs (Los Angeles Times, 3/16). Lawmakers signing the letter, including Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), said that the videos give "vague outlines of the prescription drug bill's benefits," but they do not tell beneficiaries that the prescription drug card available this summer costs $30 and that discounts and savings will vary widely. Further, the senators note that the videos do not say that beneficiaries' premiums for Medicare drug coverage could vary (Roll Call, 3/16). The six senators also contend that the videos do not mention that the prescription drug benefit will not be implemented until 2006 and that it will have a $250 annual deductible.
While the Bush administration unveiled "with great fanfare" the fliers and TV commercials about the Medicare law, "any mention of 'video news releases'" was "[m]issing from the publicity," according to the Times. Kennedy said, "If President Bush wants to run questionable ads to convince senior voters that a bad Medicare bill is good for them, then his campaign should pay for it, not the American taxpayer." Pierce said, "The reason [Democrats] are doing this, the reason we're being attacked every day with absolutely groundless accusations" is that Democrats "don't want [the Medicare law] to be successful." He added that the Clinton administration produced 26 video news releases (Los Angeles Times, 3/16). HHS spokesperson Tony Jewell called video news releases an "extremely common public relations tool that people use to get information to television broadcasters" (Babington, Washington Post, 3/16).
Several broadcast programs reported on the videos:
- CBS' "Evening News": The segment includes comments from presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. The segment also includes excerpts from the video news release (Roberts, "Evening News," CBS, 3/15). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "All Things Considered": The segment includes comments from Kerry; Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.); Pierce; and Deborah Potter, executive director of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. The segment also includes excerpts from the video news release (Rovner, "All Things Considered," NPR, 3/15). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "Talk of the Nation": Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, and NPR's Julie Rovner discuss the videos (Conan, "Talk of the Nation," NPR, 3/15). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- MPR's "Marketplace": The segment includes comments from Pierce and Kelly McBride, a member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute (Wicai, "Marketplace," MPR, 3/15). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.