Bush Urges Sourcing on VNR Clips

Apr 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Under the gun from critics of his administration, President Bush last week condemned as deceptive stations’ undisclosed use of government-provided video news releases.

“It’s incumbent upon people who use them to say, ‘This clip was produced by the federal government,'” President Bush said to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington. “There needs to be full disclosure about the sourcing of the video news clip in order to make sure that people don’t think their taxpayers’ money is being used … in a wrong fashion.”

Later the same day, the Senate approved on a 98-0 vote legislation that would require stringent labeling of prepackaged news stories sponsored by the federal government.

A White House official said Bush administration agencies are expected to continue issuing VNRs.

“There’s a great value to the American people to receive information about the activities of agencies and their various programs,” said Noam Neusner, a spokesman for the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. “The president made clear that it should be disclosed, and we believe that the policy that permits the production and releases of these news releases on video should continue.”

The battle over the Bush administration’s use of VNRs was very much in focus last week.

Under the Senate measure approved as an amendment to a defense spending bill, federal agencies would be barred from creating prepackaged news stories unless the stories clearly noted their sponsorship.

“It is time for the Bush administration to back off,” said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., the sponsor of the Senate amendment. “We trust the media to provide us with independent sources of information, not biased news stories produced by the administration at the taxpayers’ expense.”

The Senate vote followed shortly on the heels of a Federal Communications Commission announcement that the agency was launching an investigation into VNR use. The FCC also formally put broadcasters and cable operators on notice of their obligation to “clearly disclose to members of their audiences the nature, source and sponsorship of the material that they are viewing.”

In addition, Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said they won a commitment for a Senate Commerce Committee vote on a measure that would require government-sponsored VNRs to run disclaimers continuously during their airing. “The administration’s propaganda mill needs to be shut down,” Sen. Lautenberg said.

Stations have been using VNRs for years. But the Bush administration’s use of prepackaged news stories has become particularly controversial because it became apparent that stations have been using the material-which critics say unfairly promotes administration interests-without disclosing the source.

Earlier this year the General Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative agency, asserted that it was illegal for the government to produce VNRs that promote administration positions.

But the administration, through the Department of Justice and Office of Management and Budget, urged agencies to continue producing VNRs, as long as those were “purely informational.” That’s the policy the administration continues to back, despite protests from Democrats.

As part of its new investigation, the FCC said it wants to know how stations have been using VNRs, including whether the government or commercial interests have paid to place them. In addition, the FCC wants to know whether stations receive notice “regarding the identity of entities providing programming involving political material or the discussion of controversial issues of public importance.”

“Finally, we seek comment on whether there are alternative or better means of ensuring proper disclosure concerning VNRs in addition to those prescribed by the existing rules,” the FCC said.

In addition, the FCC warned that it is prepared to take stern action against licensees now.

“The commission will investigate any situation in which it appears these requirements of the law may have been violated and will order administrative sanctions against its regulatees, including the imposition of monetary forfeitures and the initiation of license revocation proceedings, where such action is appropriate,” the FCC said.

The language of Sen. Byrd’s amendment reads: “Unless otherwise authorized by existing law, none of the funds provided in this act or any other act may be used by a federal agency to produce any prepackaged news story unless that story includes a clear notification within the text or audio of the prepackaged news story that the prepackaged news story was prepared or funded by that federal agency.”

Some in the industry are concerned that regulatory backlash will seriously damage the VNR business, in both the government and commercial sectors, with the public relations community bearing a large measure of the responsibility.

“PR misdeeds have created an environment where legitimate advocacy is thrown into the same cesspool as misleading behavior by the industry,” said Douglas Simon, president & CEO of DS Simon Productions, a VNR producer. “Failure to self-regulate effectively, if at all, has led us to where government regulations could be imposed limiting the rights of broadcasters to cover the news as they see fit.”

On a related note, the Radio-Television News Directors Association released a set of guidelines last week for using material “produced and/or supplied by noneditorial sources”