Faux news is good news -- to Bush

The president defends the administration's use of video news releases without disclaimers so long as they contain just "the facts"

By Eric Boehlert
Published March 17, 2005 3:47PM (EST)

Let's take a moment to dissect President Bush's press conference response yesterday to the question about the administration's controversial use of video news releases, or VNR's, those taped, government-produced segments -- often hyping an administration initiative -- designed to look like local newscasts. Following an uproar last year centering on a now-famous pro-Medicare reform segment that aired in 40 markets and ended with the tag line, "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting," even though Ryan was a hired P.R. hand, the Government Accountability Office ruled video news releases needed to make clear right in the script that they were made by the government. If the in-script disclaimer was left out, as it was in the Karen Ryan piece, then the report would violate the federal ban on using taxpayer dollars to produce propaganda, according to the GAO. But last week, in a highly unusual move, the Department of Justice sent out a memo to federal agencies, informing them they could ignore the GAO's ruling, and that as long as the video news releases were factual, they were okay.

Here's Bush's response about the ethical questions the GAO raised in its ruling about video news releases:

Bush: "There is a Justice Department opinion that says these -- these pieces are within the law, so long as they're based upon facts, not advocacy. And I expect our agencies to adhere to that ruling, to that Justice Department opinion. This has been a longstanding practice of the federal government to use these types of videos. The Agricultural Department, as I understand it, has been using these videos for a long period of time. The Defense Department, other departments have been doing so. It's important that they be based on the guidelines set out by the Justice Department."

By mixing mentions of the DOJ's ruling and the Agriculture Department's "long" history of using video new releases, Bush tries to suggest the administration is simply following time-honored tradition. The truth is that while federal agencies have issued video news releases for decades, the decision by this administration to consciously omit any on-air disclaimers about the government's involvement is a new one. And the DOJ's interpretation that there's nothing wrong with that has only been on the books for just five days. Additionally, Bush fails to mention that the DOJ's ruling runs counter to current public relations industry standards for video news releases, which, like the GAO, stress full disclosure. As Laurence Moskowitz, chairman and CEO of Medialink, the largest producer of video news release, told Salon this week, "We advise government clients to function under the current GAO rules, which include script identification. It's prudent."

At the press conference, Bush continued, "Now, I also -- I think it would be helpful if local stations then disclosed to their viewers that that's -- that this was based upon a factual report, and they chose to use it. But evidently, in some cases, that's not the case."

Reporter: "The administration could guarantee that's happening by including that language in the pre-packaged report. some way to make sure it couldn't air without the disclosure that you believe is so vital."

Bush: "You know, Ken, there's a procedure that we're going to follow, and the local stations ought to -- if there's a deep concern about that, ought to tell their viewers what they're watching."

In other words, the administration may continue to hide the fact it's producing look-alike news segments and it's up to local television stations to tip viewers off.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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