Who pays for the news

Fallout from the exposure of propaganda videos used by the Bush administration has tarred journalists on both ends of the political spectrum.

Published April 4, 2005 9:03PM (EDT)

The scandal over conservative pundits hawking Bush administration policies in "video news releases" fizzled out weeks ago without much of an investigation into government contracts with regard to PR agencies and the use of faux reporters. But if there's been little consequence for the administration, the fallout has touched journalists on both sides of the political spectrum; a number have been accused of having government agendas, although some of the criticisms appear to have more merit than others.

Last week the Sarasota Herald-Tribune broke a story about Mike Vasilinda, a Florida freelance journalist who produced TV stories on Florida's political scene. At the same time, he earned thousands of dollars from promotional films his production company created for Gov. Jeb Bush's office, raising questions about his independence as a reporter. Some Florida NBC affiliates said they were not aware of Vasilinda's contracts with the government, hinting at a lack of disclosure that parallels the pay-for-play scandal, when networks unwittingly ran government segments as news.

But Vasilinda said his work bore no resemblance to the pundits implicated in the payola controversy, since the news and production functions of his business were kept separate and he did not appear in any of the videos his company produced.

The BBC has also come under fire -- for broadcasting a radio segment prepared by the British Forces Broadcasting Service, a program funded through the Ministry of Defense. The BBC made it clear where the report was from, but not that the BFBS was a government-run program. The BBC acknowledged that use of the item "was not ideal" and won't be repeated.

For its part, the conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media has accused freelance correspondent Ian Williams of spreading "U.N. propaganda." It notes that Williams (a Salon contributor) has trained U.N. officials in interview techniques and written informational booklets for the organization. Williams appeared on the O'Reilly Factor to defend himself against comparisons to Armstrong Williams, pointing out that he only earned $150 in 2004 for an interview with Hans Blix, and that the rest of his business relationship with the U.N. is disclosed on his Web site.

Meanwhile, a more clear-cut case of government propaganda, with strong parallels to the White House VNR scandal didn't make much of a splash in the mainstream media. Three California unions are suing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration for using taxpayer money to produce seven videos that promote its labor initiatives. The mock news videos extol Schwarzenegger's efforts to reduce nurse-staffing numbers, end mandatory lunch breaks for hourly workers, and other proposals. As with the Bush spots, the clips did not contain a disclaimer that they were crafted by a government agency when they were aired.

"This truly is a blending of all the lines: It's propaganda; it's campaigns. It is all meshed into one," said state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who is taking action to investigate the government agency responsible for one of the tapes. Schwarzenegger's press secretary had a more technical sort of explanation for the videos, calling them "a press release in video form."

By Julia Scott

San Francisco-based freelance journalist Julia Scott writes about water and energy issues for various publications. She also covers the environment for Bay Area News Group, a chain of newspapers in Northern California.

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