New York

Propaganda? What Propaganda?

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Some of the “news reports” you’ve seen on your local TV station may have been produced at taxpayer expense with PR specialists posing as reporters but broadcast to you as if they were objective stories composed by independent journalists.

But that’s OK, according to the White House.

Before the Bush information machine was rocked by revelations that Armstrong Williams was on the Education Department payroll and White House “reporter” Jeff Gannon was backed by GOP funders, a battle was already brewing over “video news releases,” which government and companies use to spread the word about the good works they do.

The General Accounting Office has found that some of the VNRs used by the Bush team constitute illegal “covert propaganda” because they are made to look like news reports and there is no disclosure of the government’s role in creating them. In one decision in January, the GAO cited some VNRs released by the national drug czar in which “the narrator explains that he or she is ‘reporting’ on press conferences,” and “Each story is accompanied by proposed ‘lead-in’ and ‘closing’ remarks to be spoken by television station news anchors. Many of the suggested anchor remarks include a phrase like, ‘Mike Morris has the story.’ “ An earlier GAO decision criticized a VNR about Medicare. As reported here in January, the appeal of these VNRs was described well by one of the companies that makes them: “Imagine the credibility to be gained by having your message delivered by a trusted news anchor as opposed to a paid commercial spot.” And as The New York Times reported in a masterful piece this weekend, some of the Bush administration VNRs involve a PR specialist using a false name, scripted interviews with agency officials, and no hint of critics or doubts about the administration’s marvelous programs.

The hubbub led the GAO to warn federal agencies last month that while they can produce VNRs, they have to disclose to viewers that they are watching their tax dollars at work. finding “prepackaged news stories can be utilized without violating the law, so long as there is clear disclosure to the television viewing audience that this material was prepared by or in cooperation with the government department or agency.”

But the White House told executive agencies in a memo released Friday that the Justice Department, not the GAO, makes their rules. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (whose Greatest Hits include the August 2002 “torture memo”) found that “the prohibition on using funds for ‘propaganda’ did not extend to VNRs that did not constitute advocacy for any particular position or view,” citing “the purely informational nature of the VNRs at issue.” And if there is no “advocacy of a particular viewpoint,” the OLC argues, then it doesn’t matter that the government never discloses its role in the VNRs.

But one wonders: If there’s no advocacy of a particular viewpoint, then what would be the harm of disclosing the fact that the VNR is government-produced? Perhaps Mike Morris has the story.