Vote Near on VNR Labeling

Oct 17, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Backers of controversial legislation that would require ever-present labeling of government-sponsored video news releases insisted last week they will have the votes needed to ensure the measure’s approval when the Senate Commerce Committee convenes Oct. 19.

But news industry lobbyists remained hopeful that lawmakers would come to their senses and vote down a measure they say would violate industry First Amendment rights.

The bill on the committee’s voting agenda-backed by Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., John Kerry, D-Mass., and other leading Senate Democrats-would require government-sponsored video news releases to display the label “Produced by the U.S. Government” for the “entire duration of the prepackaged news story.”

As originally introduced, the measure also would require broadcasters and cable TV operators to leave the disclosures intact.

The bill’s Democratic sponsors have made no secret of the fact they want to throw a monkey wrench into what they see as the escalating efforts of federal agencies to use VNRs to surreptitiously promote Bush administration policies on the air.

But industry sources say the bill’s provisions would kill government VNRs, which supply stations with snippets of material to use for B-roll in their own stories.

“It appears that they have got some overkill here,” said Dan Jaffe, executive VP of the Association of National Advertisers.

“Clearly, you want people to know what they’re getting and not [be] fooled by something that’s been purchased,” Mr. Jaffe said. “On the other hand, you don’t want to have it in such a way that it makes it impossible to get a message across that’s a legitimate one.”

To neutralize the impact on station news operations, industry lobbyists have been quietly urging Sen. Lautenberg’s staff to delete the bill’s provision barring broadcasters and cable operators from removing the government disclosures.

“There is no disagreement about the need for broadcast journalists to identify the origin of material they use from outside sources, including government agencies,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. “But we believe there should be no legal or regulatory burden that broadcasters would have to adhere to.”

She added: “Putting the burden on the government agency is not a concern for us.”

A spokesman for Sen. Lautenberg said lawmakers were discussing “slight refinements.” But the spokesman said the bill is expected to pass the committee largely as it was introduced.

“We know we have the votes,” Sen. Lautenberg’s spokesman said.

Stations have been using government-sponsored VNRs for years. But the Bush administration’s use of prepackaged news stories became particularly controversial early this year after stories alleged that some stations were using the material-which often include people posing as news reporters-without disclosing the source.

That set off a storm of controversy, with Democrats outraged that taxpayers were being asked to foot the bill for what Democrats viewed as Bush administration propaganda.

Under the gun from his critics, President Bush in April condemned as deceptive stations’ undisclosed use of government-sponsored VNRs. “It is incumbent upon people who use them to say, “This clip was produced by the federal government,'” President Bush said.

On the same day, the Senate voted to approve an appropriations bill rider backed by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., that required federal agencies to include a “clear notification” of their sponsorship of prepackaged news stories. The Byrd amendment did nothing to require broadcasters to include the disclosures. The rider expired Sept. 30.

Giving the industry hope: During Senate hearings on Sen. Lautenberg’s bill this year, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said he would rather make Sen. Byrd’s bill permanent than approve Sen. Lautenberg’s measure.

“It’s been the announced intention to make the Byrd amendment permanent,” Sen. Stevens said.