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Senate Backs VNR IDs

It looks like one way or another, the government and broadcasters are going to have to identify  packaged political video-news releases.

The Senate Thursday night unanimously approved an amendment to an appropriations bill that would require government agencies to clearly disclose themselves as sources of packaged VNRs. The larger bill is expected to be approved next week.

Packaged VNRs are "news" stories, produced by government and industry, that can use actors playing the part of journalists.

The amendment, introduced by Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.V.), would prohibit the use of federal money for prepackaged video news releases unless there is "clear notification" that the story was produced and paid for by a federal agency.

"We trust the media to provide us with independent sources of information, not biased news stories produced by the Administration at the taxpayers’ expense," Byrd said in introducing the amendment.

Currently, boilerplate language in all appropriations bills states that no federal money can be used for "covert propaganda." but while the Government Accounting Office has said undisclosed government VNRs violate that prohibition, the Justice Department disagrees.

While the President has cautioned agencies on use of undisclosed packaged VNRs, he has issued no blanket prohibition, citing the Justice opinion, though he has said broadcasters can identify the source if they are concerned.

The FCC Wednesday said broadcaster must identify VNRs if they are on political or other controversial topics.

A spokesman for Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) said the Senator and his colleagues still planned to introduce a bill that would similarly require disclosure. 

The bill was still being written, but an amendment that Kerry and several other Senators introduced then withdrew last week, would have required that the ID appear on-screen throughout the entire duration of the piece, and would make it illegal for broadcast and cable outlets to remove it.FCC rules currently require broadcasters to disclose before and after the airing of any VNR on political or controversial matter of over five-minutes in length.