The Federal Communications Committee became the latest federal watchdog agency to clamp down on the use of government-produced "video news releases," those look-alike TV news segments the Bush administration has used to hype its policies. Late yesterday, the FCC instructed broadcasters that whenever they air a VNR they must identify the origins of the report in order to avoid any confusion. The ruling comes on the heels of an assessment by the Government Accountability Office, which concluded that VNR's lacking clear disclosure about their production by the government constitute propaganda, and therefore are an illegal use of taxpayer dollars under the Consolidated Appropriations Resolution of 2003. (The Justice Department later stepped in and overruled the GAO's findings.)
The VNR controversy arose last year after the airing of a pro-Medicare-reform faux news segment created by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an agency that is part of the Department of Health and Human Service. Seamlessly produced to look like a news report for local television stations, the agency's VNR was perhaps too realistic. When it aired in its entirety in nearly 40 local television markets between Jan. 22 and Feb. 12, 2004, viewers were never told the 90-second package had been created by the government. Adding to the confusion was the use of a hired narrator, who ended the spot with the sign-off: "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting."
While the GAO addressed the role of the government in producing VNR's, the FCC took aim at broadcasters who fell down on the job and simply aired the press releases -- dressed up as news reports -- without informing viewers. "Whenever broadcast stations and cable operators air VNRs, licensees and operators generally must clearly disclose to members of their audiences the nature, source and sponsorship of the material that they are viewing," the FCC ruled, warning, "We will take appropriate enforcement action against entities that do not comply with these rules."
"We have a responsibility to tell broadcasters they have to let people know where the material is coming from," FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, told the Washington Post. "Viewers are hoodwinked into thinking it's really a news story when it might be from the government or a big corporation trying to influence the way they think. This will put them in a better position to decide for themselves what to make of it."
No word yet if the Bush Justice Department will seek to overturn this VNR ruling as well.