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FCC: Disclose Those Political VNRs

Broadcasters and cable operators were put on notice by the Federal Communications Commission Wednesday that they'd better identify the source of video-news reports on controversial and political issues, or else.

Whenever they run video news releases, the FCC said, broadcast and cable outlets "generally must clearly disclose" to the audience the "nature, source and sponsorship" of the material," or face possible fines, license revocation, or imprisonment of up to a year.

"Generally" because they don't necessarily have to identify VNR material that they are not paid to run and that does not deal with political hot-button issues. But they will get in trouble for running undisclosed VNR's for controversial government policies, whether or not they have been directly paid to use them.

That's because while the disclosure requirement applies to all programming for which a broadcaster has received direct or indirect payment, it also applies to programming for which the broadcaster or cable operator was not paid if that material deals with political or controversial issues. In addition, the top officials of the group supplying that programming must be identified in the station's public file.

The FCC said Wednesday it was simply reminding broadcasters of their disclosure responsibilities under existing sponsorship identification rules. But it was clearly a shot across the bow, even if the commission said it was not addressing the current controversy over whether the government is allowed to sponsor unidentified VNRs, "which is an issue beyond the commission's jurisdiction," the FCC said in issuing the public notice.

The FCC said it was responding to a large number of complaints--Commissioner Michael Copps said tens of thousands--over the use of VNRs and whether they complied with sponsorship ID rules.

It also issued a request for public comment on the use of VNR's, for instance, are media outlets paid to use them, to determine how best to monitor their future use. The commission said it would issue a report, or perhaps initiate a formal proceeding, based on those comments.

Following revelations in January 2004 that the Department of Health and Human Services prepared prepackaged programming segments on controversial White House Medicare policies, critics of the Bush Administration have demanded that the use of VNRs by  federal agencies be eliminated.

A Government Accountability Office study in May of last year declared the Medicare VNR to be illegal "covert propaganda," a characterization the White House disputes, citing a Justice Department opinion contradicting GAO.

Following the initial VNR controversy, the Bush Administration came under fire for a string of incidents that critics charged were attempts to manipulate the media.

Included in the controversies was a revelation that TV pundit/columnist Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 by the administration to tout its No Child Left Behind schools program.

Alluding to those pay-for-play scandals, Commissioner Michael Copps saw the issue as another byproduct of big media, saying: "In this era of huge corporate media, it has gotten just about impossible to tell the difference between news and entertainment or to differentiate between legitimate information and propaganda."

"We have seen a debate between the GAO and [Justice] about whether governmental VNRs constitute 'covert propaganda,'" said the other commission Democrat, Jonathan Adelstein, "the surprising thing, though, is nobody bothered to mention that there are separate disclosure requirements enforced by the FCC under the Communications Act.--Bill McConnell contributed to this report.