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post #1 of 2 (permalink) Old 04-01-2005, 11:02 PM Thread Starter
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Government video reports blur media ethics

Government video reports blur media ethics
Segments don't always include source information

It is the kind of TV news coverage every president covets.

"Thank you, Bush. Thank you, U.S.A.," a jubilant Iraqi American told a camera crew in Kansas City for a segment about reaction to the fall of Baghdad. A second report told of "another success" in the Bush administration's "drive to strengthen aviation security"; the reporter called it "one of the most remarkable campaigns in aviation history." A third segment, broadcast in January, described the administration's determination to open markets for American farmers.

To a viewer, each report looked like any other 90-second segment on the local news. In fact, the federal government produced all three. The report from Kansas City was made by the State Department. The "reporter" covering airport safety was actually a public-relations professional working under a false name for the Transportation Security Administration. The farming segment was done by the Agriculture Department's office of communications.

Under the Bush administration, the federal government has aggressively used a well-established tool of public relations: the prepackaged, ready-to- serve news report that major corporations have long distributed to TV stations to pitch everything from headache remedies to auto insurance. In all, at least 20 different federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years, records and interviews show. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgment of the government's role in their production.

Punditry-for-pay scandal

This winter, Washington has been roiled by revelations that a handful of columnists wrote in support of administration policies without disclosing they had accepted payments from the government. But the administration's efforts to generate positive news coverage have been considerably more pervasive than previously known. At the same time, records and interviews suggest widespread complicity or negligence by television stations, given industry ethics standards that discourage the broadcast of prepackaged news segments from any outside group without revealing the source.

Federal agencies are forthright with broadcasters about the origin of the news segments they distribute. The reports themselves, though, are designed to fit seamlessly into the typical local news broadcast. In most cases, the "reporters" are careful not to state in the segment that they work for the government. Their reports generally avoid overt ideological appeals. Instead, the government's news-making apparatus has produced a quiet drumbeat of broadcasts describing a vigilant and compassionate administration.

Some reports were produced to support the administration's most cherished policy objectives, like regime change in Iraq or Medicare reform. Others focused on less prominent matters, such as the administration's efforts to offer free after-school tutoring, its campaign to curb childhood obesity, its initiatives to preserve forests and wetlands, its plans to fight computer viruses, even its attempts to fight holiday drunken driving. They often feature "interviews" with senior administration officials in which questions are scripted and answers rehearsed. Critics, though, are excluded, as are any hints of mismanagement, waste or controversy.

Some of the segments were seen in millions of homes and were broadcast in some of nation's largest TV markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta.

PR gets tangled up in news

An examination of government-produced news reports offers a look inside a world where the traditional lines between public relations and journalism have become tangled, where local anchors introduce prepackaged segments with "suggested" lead-ins written by public relations experts. It is a world where government-produced reports disappear into a maze of satellite transmissions, Web portals, syndicated news programs and network feeds, only to emerge cleansed on the other side as "independent" journalism.

The practice, which also occurred in the Clinton administration, is continuing despite President Bush's recent call for a clearer demarcation between journalism and government publicity efforts. "There needs to be a nice independent relationship between the White House and the press," Bush told reporters in January, explaining why his administration would no longer pay pundits to support his policies.

In interviews, though, press officers for several federal agencies said the president's prohibition did not apply to government-made TV news segments, also known as video news releases. They described the segments as factual, politically neutral and useful to viewers. They noted that the Clinton administration also distributed video news releases, and they insisted that there was no similarity to the case of Armstrong Williams, a conservative columnist who promoted the administration's chief education initiative, the No Child Left Behind legislation, without disclosing $240,000 in payments from the Department of Education.

What is more, these officials argued, it is the responsibility of television news directors to inform viewers that a segment about the government was in fact written by the government.

"Talk to the television stations that ran it without attribution," said Bill Pierce, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services. "This is not our problem. We can't be held responsible for their actions."

Yet in three separate opinions in the past year, the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress that studies the federal government and its expenditures, has held that government-made news segments may constitute improper "covert propaganda," even if their origin is made clear to the television stations. The point, the office said, is whether viewers know the origin. Last month, in its most recent finding, the GAO said federal agencies may not produce prepackaged news reports "that conceal or do not clearly identify for the television viewing audience that the agency was the source of those materials."

It is not certain, though, whether the office's pronouncements will have much practical effect. Although a few federal agencies have stopped making television news segments, others continue. And on Friday, the Justice Department and the Office of Management and Budget circulated a memorandum instructing all executive branch agencies to ignore the GAO findings. The memorandum said the GAO failed to distinguish between covert propaganda and "purely informational" news segments made by the government. Such informational segments are legal, the memorandum said, whether or not an agency's role in producing them is disclosed to viewers.

Federal agencies have been commissioning video news releases since at least the first Clinton administration. An increasing number of state agencies are producing television news reports, too. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department alone has produced some 500 video news releases since 1993. And Democratic lawmakers in California this month criticized the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for distributing taped news-like segments to television stations.

Under the Bush administration, federal agencies appear to be producing more releases, and on a broader array of topics.

A definitive accounting is nearly impossible. There is no comprehensive archive of local television news reports, as there is in print journalism, so there is no easy way to determine what has been broadcast, and when and where.

Several large agencies, including the Defense Department, the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, acknowledge expanded efforts to produce news segments. Many members of Bush's first-term Cabinet appeared in such segments.

A recent study by congressional Democrats offers another rough indicator: The Bush administration spent $254 million in its first term on public relations contracts, nearly double what the last Clinton administration spent.

On Sept. 11, 2002, WHBQ, the Fox affiliate in Memphis, marked the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks with an uplifting report on how assistance from the United States was helping to liberate the women of Afghanistan.

Tish Clark, a reporter for WHBQ, described how Afghan women, once barred from schools and jobs, were at last emerging from their burqas, taking up jobs as seamstresses and bakers, sending daughters off to new schools, receiving decent medical care for the first time and even participating in a fledgling democracy. Her segment included an interview with an Afghan teacher who recounted how the Taliban allowed only boys to attend school. An Afghan doctor described how the Taliban refused to let male physicians treat women.

In short, Clark's report seemed to corroborate, however modestly, a central argument of the Bush foreign policy, that forceful American intervention abroad was spreading freedom, improving lives and winning friends.

What the people of Memphis were not told, though, was that the interviews used by WHBQ were actually conducted by State Department contractors. The contractors also selected the quotes used from those interviews and filmed the footage that went with the narration. They also wrote the narration, much of which Clark repeated with only minor changes.

As it happens, the viewers of WHBQ were not the only ones in the dark.

Reporter didn't know her source

Clark, now Tish Clark Dunning, said in an interview that she, too, had no idea the report originated at the State Department. "If that's true, I'm very shocked that anyone would falsely report on anything like that," she said.

How a television reporter in Memphis came to unwittingly narrate a segment by the State Department reveals much about the extent to which government-produced news accounts have seeped into the broader new media landscape.

The explanation begins inside the White House, where the president's communications advisers devised a strategy after Sept. 11 to encourage supportive news coverage of the fight against terrorism. The idea, they explained to reporters at the time, was to counter charges of American imperialism by generating accounts that emphasized American efforts to liberate and rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq.

An important instrument of this strategy was the Office of Broadcasting Services, a State Department unit of 30 or so editors and technicians whose typical duties include distributing footage from news conferences. But in early 2002, with close editorial direction from the White House, the unit began producing narrated feature reports, many of them promoting American achievements in Afghanistan and Iraq and reinforcing the administration's rationales for the invasions. These reports were then widely distributed in the United States and around the world for use by local TV stations. In all, the State Department has produced 59 such segments.

U.S. law contains provisions intended to prevent the domestic dissemination of government propaganda. The 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, for example, allows Voice of America to broadcast pro-government news to foreign audiences, but not at home. Yet State Department officials said that law does not apply to the Office of Broadcasting Services. In any event, said Richard A. Boucher, a State Department spokesman, "Our goal is to put out facts and the truth. We're not a propaganda agency."

In June 2003, the unit produced a segment that depicted American efforts to distribute food and water to the people of southern Iraq. "After living for decades in fear, they are now receiving assistance -- and building trust -- with their coalition liberators," the unidentified narrator concluded.

Ready-made ‘news’Government agencies have been producing hundreds of prepackaged televisionbroadcasts that local news stations have picked up and almost seamlessly integratedinto their news programs..
SYNOPSIS The Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act signed into law by President Bush in 2004 will provide seniors new drug benefits.

QUOTE FROM SEGMENT Tommy G. Thompson (right) then secretary of Health and Human Services: “This is going to be the same Medicare system only with new benefits, more choices, more opportunities for enhanced benefits.�

CONTEXT President Bush has cited Medicare reform as a major achievement. The GAO found that the segments, which ran on at least 40 stations, contained notable omissions’’ and were “not strictly factual.’’ On Friday, administration lawyers circulated a memo instructing executive agencies to ignore the GAO findings.

SYNOPSIS The Transportation Security Administration meets a Congressional deadline requiring explosives screening for all checked baggage.
QUOTE FROM SEGMENT Narration: “It’s one of the most remarkable campaigns in aviation history. Thousands leaving impressive careers and good jobs to take up the front lines in the war against terrorism.�

CONTEXT This was one of several news segments produced by the Transportation Security Administration touting administration efforts to improve airport safety. A spokeswoman for the TSA said that Jennifer Morrow was a fictitious name used by an employee of the public relations firm hired to film the segment.

SYNOPSIS The Army’s police academy at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., has a program for training military prison guards.
QUOTE FROM SEGMENT Narration: Each year, the Army trains about 5,000 soldiers as M.P.s. It also teaches some M.P.s to be prison guards. And one of the most important lessons they learn is to treat prisoners strictly, but fairly.�

CONTEXT Months after news broke of abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, a unit of the Defense Department called the Army & Air Force Hometown News Service produced this news segment, which was distributed to 34 stations. The segment was one of 50 stories the unit did last year that reached an estimated 41 million households.

SYNOPSIS U.S. assistance is helping to liberate the women of Afghanistan.
QUOTE FROM SEGMENT Narration: American and allied aid is putting needy women back in business.�

CONTEXT This was one of 59 feature segments put out as part of a White House effort to build support for the war on terror. The State Department distributed this segment around the world, and WHBQ, the Fox affiliate in Memphis, ran it almost unchanged. The WHBQ reporter who narrated the script — which was written by State Department contractors — said she was unaware the segment came from the government. New York Times
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post #2 of 2 (permalink) Old 04-01-2005, 11:22 PM
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RE: Government video reports blur media ethics

What would one expect in a world where so many actually believe creationism is a valid, intelligent alternative to evolutionary theory.
It says, "I can't be bothered looking things up."
It says, "We'd rather be emotionally manipulated than expend the real effort to be truly objective individuals."
It says, "Americanism is the home of walking the dog."

Democratic governments only represent what they are told to, of and for their people.

Switzerland or Canada is looking better every day.

driving a fast car should feel like falling off a building.
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