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Commerce Considers VNR Labeling

The Senate Commerce Committee next week will consider a bill to mandate government identification on all packaged news releases it issues.

S. 967, the Truth in Broadcasting Act of 2005, was introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg for, among others, Senators John Kerry, Hilary Clinton and Ted Kennedy, in the wake of the debate over government-produced VNRs on health care and education.

The Government Accountability Office has said unattributed packaged VNRs violate a prohibition on "covert propaganda," while the Justice Department has said unattributed VNRs aren't covert propaganda as long as they are fact-based. The FCC does not require disclosure unless the VNR is on a political or controversial topic.

Just last week, GAO again said that unattributed VNRs violated covert propaganda restrictions, this time in connection with its investigation into Department of Education PR contracts. The department had found problems, but not illegality, in the contracts.

The bill would mandate that the government put a label, "Produced By the U.S. Government" (the FCC could tweak the language and format as it saw fit) on all packaged video news releases, and that the label air during the entirety of the VNR.

The affirmative obligation to include the disclaimer would be on the government agency, though it would be illegal for broadcasters, satellite operators, cable operators or anybody else in the distribution chain to remove it.

The Senate bill is more restrictive than one passed in the House last July.

That bill prohibits the White House and federal agencies from producing video news releases for domestic consumption unless the package includes a "clear notification" within the text or audio disclosing that the prepackaged news story was prepared or funded by the government. But the disclaimer does not have to air during the entirety of the piece.

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.