The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee Thursday said he opposes legislation that would require TV stations to tell viewers when they air pre-packaged news stories produced by the government; instead he's pushing a less restrictive alternative.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said during a hearing on video news releases, or VNRs, that a bill sponsored by Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) infringes on broadcasters' free-speech rights by dictating how they craft news reports. That bill would require government agencies to include disclaimers visible during the entire length of a pre-packaged story that notify viewers they are watching a government-prepared report. Stevens' opposition could all but doom the measure because he controls which bills come to a vote on his panel.
Instead, he we wants to make permanent a less-intrusive temporary VNR alternative sponsored by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) that was put in place earlier this month. That provision simply requires government agencies to disclose their production in a disclaimer included in the report. Broadcasters, however, would have no obligation to run the disclaimer when their newscasts air. Byrd's measure expires Sept. 30.
Stevens, however, said he would consider allowing a vote on the Lautenberg/Kerry measure in late July "if there is a need." By then, the FCC will have received public and industry comments from a separate inquiry it is conducting into the need for more VNR disclosure and the impact of tougher disclosure requirements will be better understood, he said.
Pre-packaged VNRs are complete news reports that stations can air with no additional editing. Sometimes the reports come with scripted lead-ins that station anchors can use to introduce the reports. Critics of the practice say government-produced VNRs amount to federal propaganda and often promote controversial policies. VNRs are also produced by corporate PR departments seeking positive coverage for their companies.
Lautenberg and Kerry introduced their legislation after press revelations that a Medicare VNR package featured a government-paid actor posing as a journalist reporting on the benefits of the Bush administration's 2003 prescription drug plan. Additional momentum was generated after USA Today revealed that TV commentator and columnist Armstrong Williams accepted $240,000 to tout the White House No Child Left Behind program during the TV appearances and in print.
The Government Accountability Office and the Justice Department have issued conflicting opinions on whether federal agencies must disclose that they are the producers of VNRs. GAO, which is the investigative arm of Congress, says that unidentified pre-package reports are illegal "covert propaganda." The Justice Department, a cabinet level agency led by the White House, says federal agencies are under no obligation to disclose that they are the producers of VNRs.
Kerry strongly criticized the Justice Department's position. "The federal government should not be in the business of manipulating public opinion with fake news reports." Lautenberg said resistance to disclosure suggests that the reports are "designed to deceive."
Stevens countered that the uproar over government-produced VNRs is motivated by Democrats' desire to attack President Bush and his policies. He noted that the Clinton administration relied on VNRS to promote its policies, particularly its opposition to oil drilling in Stevens' home state of Alaska. "Too many things during the last administration were coming out about my state and their source was never disclosed," said.
Lautenberg and Kerry said they were shocked when they learned about the Clinton Administration's use of VNRs to promote its policies but did not back off their demand for broadcast disclosures.
"This is not the first time [VNRs] have been done, so this is not just pointing a finger at the president," Lautenberg said.
FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein blamed TV stations' willingness to use pre-packaged reports on cutbacks in newsroom budgets caused by media consolidation. Facing financial pressure to show a payoff from expensive acquisitions, news room layoffs "create a void public relations firms are happy to fill," Adelstein said.
Representatives from the TV news and PR industries opposed the Lautenberg/Kerry bill and urged Stevens to push for permanent enactment of Byrd's alternative. "Video news releases are a necessary tool to keeping the public informed and disclosure is critical," said Douglas Simon, chief executive of D S Simon Productions, a producer and distributor of VNRs. By spelling out how disclosures must be made to the public, however, the government might discourage stations from airing them. "Rather than deciding whether the story, or a portion of it, should air based on news standards, stations will be factoring in whether they are comfortable changing the look of their broadcasts," Simon said.
Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, said the "The determination of what to include in any particular newscast constitutes the very core journalistic function of a broadcaster, and is a matter far removed from government supervision."
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