FCC: VNRs Need IDs

The FCC put TV stations and cable operators on notice last week, urging them to identify producers of pre-packaged news stories about Social Security privatization, education reform, or other political or controversial issues.

Following the uproar over the Bush Administration's use of video news releases (VNRs), the Federal Communications Commission said stations and cable outlets “must clearly disclose” the “nature, source and sponsorship” of political or controversial material, as well as material they have been paid to run.

Failure to reveal sponsors of political or controversial VNRs, the FCC said, could lead to fines up to $10,000, license revocation or imprisonment of up to a year.

VNRs are pre-packaged stories produced so that TV news programmers can air them without additional editing. Sometimes actors have been employed to portray reporters. Producers of the releases often suggest scripts that news anchors can use as lead-ins.

The FCC's action was cheered by activists at Free Press, which petitioned the FCC to review the use of VNRs. “The broadcast industry's use of video news releases and other government- and corporate-funded fake news continues to enrage Americans,” says Free Press Executive Director Josh Silver. “Unless broadcasters take immediate action to cease or disclose their use of this material, we will pressure the government to take stronger action.”

But one distributor of VNRs and “B-roll” video clips warns that the government should not be dictating how news producers do their job. Instead, public-relations executives have an obligation to make sure news operations are aware of the source of any video release. “We're heading down a dangerous path if they allow limits on what broadcasters can show,” says Douglas Simon, chief executive of D S Simon Productions.

Separate from the FCC action, government agencies also were put on notice that Congress may require them to disclose when they are the source of a VNR. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) last week committed to holding a hearing and a committee vote on a VNR bill to be introduced by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

Passage of the legislation would resolve a turf fight between the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, and the Justice Department over whether VNRs must be identified to keep them from being considered illegal government-funded “covert propaganda.” Right now, GAO says yes; Justice says no.

The threat of penalty applies to undisclosed VNRs produced by government agencies, whether or not stations and operators have been directly paid to use them, if those VNRs promote controversial policies. Programming outlets, however, don't have to identify VNR material that they are not paid to run and that does not deal with political hot-button issues. The FCC said it was simply reminding broadcasters of their disclosure responsibilities under existing sponsorship-identification rules. The commission insisted it was not addressing the central issue in the controversy: whether government agencies bear any liability when VNRs are used without identification. This “is an issue beyond the commission's jurisdiction,” the FCC said.

The commission added that it was responding to a large number of complaints—tens of thousands, according to Commissioner Michael Copps—over the use of VNRs and whether they complied with sponsorship-ID rules. The agency said it will also issue a report, or perhaps initiate a formal rulemaking, based on public comments.

Following revelations in January 2004 that the Department of Health and Human Services supplied pre-packaged 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 GAO study last May declared the Medicare VNR to be illegal “covert propaganda,” a characterization the White House disputes, citing a contradictory Justice Department opinion.