Senate Reportedly Supports Disclosure of Government-Produced Video News Releases
There is a large amount of support in the Senate for a permanent requirement that would ask federal agencies to disclose the source of government-funded prepackaged news stories, according to Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chair Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who said that he would support such a requirement, the Washington Post reports. An amendment requiring disclosure was included in the $82 billion emergency spending bill for the Iraq war that Congress earlier this month sent to President Bush. However, the measure expires at the end of September (Lee, Washington Post, 5/13).
Government Accountability Office officials in March 2004 said the Bush administration violated two federal laws through video news releases that were part of its campaign to promote the new Medicare law. GAO's legal opinion stated that the videos "violated a statute that forbids the use of federal money for propaganda, as well as the Antideficiency Act," which prohibits spending in excess of appropriations. GAO determined that the videos are a form of "covert propaganda" because the government was not identified as the source of the materials.
The videos, produced to air during local TV news broadcasts, featured actors paid to read HHS-prepared scripts. HHS also prepared introductions to the segments for local news anchors. 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." As of Feb. 12, 2004, all or parts of the videos had aired 53 times on 40 stations in 33 media markets (California Healthline, 5/20/04).
Speaking to reporters on Thursday following a committee hearing on the issue, Stevens said, "We're talking about the disclosure being the burden of the government if it provides (the video) with taxpayer funds. That is the agreed position that we've got so far." The temporary provision says that federal money cannot be used to prepare the releases "unless the story includes a clear notification within the text or audio ... that the packaged news story was prepared or funded by that federal agency."
A bill (S 967) by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) would require agencies and the White House to include a written disclaimer visible throughout the story containing the words, "PRODUCED BY THE U.S. GOVERNMENT." Lautenberg said, "The notion that they don't want to do it suggests that it is designed to deceive." Kerry said, "We're equally shocked to know that this was going on in the Clinton administration. ... It underscores that it's not appropriate for anyone to do it."
Stevens, however, said the bill goes too far because it includes the White House and agencies. He added that the legislation is premature because the Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to make a statement on video news releases in July. Stevens said he will work to make the provision in the emergency spending bill permanent. Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, said she supports disclosures but opposes this bill because the appearance of a story "should be in the hands of the people producing the news" (Washington Post, 5/13).