News Videos Spark Inquiry

Mar 22, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The watchdog General Accounting Office announced last week that it has launched an inquiry into the propriety of a recent series of Bush administration video news releases promoting the new Medicare law, which featured a public relations professional posing as a journalist.
Some Democrats charge government sponsorship of the releases was so poorly identified as to run afoul of the law. “It’s covert advertising,” said Alex Formuzis, a spokesman for Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.
But Republicans dismissed the complaints as a partisan effort to divert attention from a legislative victory for President Bush during an election year. “They’re doing everything they can to try to prevent us from educating seniors about the new Medicare program,” said Bill Pierce, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.
The video news releases aired on 40 television stations in 33 markets earlier this year as part of a publicity campaign HHS says is worth more than $30 million a year. They featured footage of President Bush and sound bites featuring HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson promoting provisions in the new law, including one that creates a Medicare benefit for prescription medicine.
According to administration representatives, the packages are intended to educate senior citizens about new benefits-an educational mandate they say is required by the new law.
Democrats are charging that the promotion runs afoul of a law barring the use of federal appropriations for “publicity or propaganda purposes … not heretofore authorized by the Congress.”
Mr. Pierce said sponsorship of the video news releases was made clear to stations. He said the HHS feeds supplied stations with standard B-roll and sound bites, in addition to a fully packaged story, giving them the option of putting together their own packages featuring their own reporters.
A copy of one of the Medicare video news releases, which HHS provided to TelevisionWeek, includes a disclosure of sorts on the feed before the actual package begins, identifying the material with the statement, “Government answers questions about new Medicare law.”
No sponsorship disclosures appear within the body of the news release, which features images of President Bush and sound bites from HHS’s Mr. Thompson.
The video ends with the voice of a woman signing off: “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.”
Mr. Pierce told The New York Times that Ms. Ryan is a “freelance journalist,” but she is not actually a reporter-although she apparently has worked as a journalist in the past. She told the Columbia Journalism Review last week that she is a public relations professional who runs her own company. She said she did the voiceover for the HHS video simply as a job.
HHS also provided to TVWeek copies of similar video news releases produced by the Clinton administration in 1999 that focused on President Clinton’s proposal for Medicare reform.
Like the Bush administration video, the Clinton administration releases included no disclosure of their government sponsorship within the actual video packages. But they noted in the feed before the reports began that the “tape is provided by the U.S. Health and Human Services for your free and unrestricted use.”
Video news releases have been the subject of controversy in the industry for more than a decade, with many stations insisting that they never use them. But Deborah Potter, executive director of the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation, said a 2002 study showed that 14 percent of stations that admit to using video news releases rarely or never reveal the source for the material.
“Stations that use even a portion of these should disclose the origin to their viewers,” Ms. Potter said.
In this case, HHS’s Mr. Pierce said it is unclear how many stations have used the HHS video to produce their own packages or have used the one provided without disclosing its source.
“Yes, we are trying to influence the news,” said Mr. Pierce. “That’s what a news release is.”
Stations’ Choice
But according to Mr. Pierce, it’s up to each station what it does with the material.
“There is no way this can be deceptive,” Mr. Pierce said. “If they run the whole package, that’s their choice.”
In their original challenge to the Bush administration’s publicity campaign, Sen. Lautenberg and other leading Democrats-including presidential contender Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.-focused their concern on an HHS flier and TV advertisements promoting the Medicare measure.
On March 10, the GAO issued a report holding that the flier and ads did not run afoul of the law, even though the material included “notable omissions and other weaknesses.”
Said GAO, “In our view, the materials are not so partisan as to be unlawful.”
A GAO spokesman said the agency is still scrutinizing the video news releases, which were brought to the agency’s attention by HHS during the inquiry into the flier and ads. “We will evaluate this information and the propriety of using appropriated funds to support these activities,” GAO said in a statement.