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White House's ONDCP Nixes VNRs

President George W. Bush may be defending VNRs, but that doesn't hold for everybody in the Executive Office of the President.

The White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) says it will no longer use video news releases to promote its anti-drug messages.

In a letter to the Government Accountability Office, ONDCP Director John Walters said that GAO's Feb. 17, 2005, guidance on VNR's made their further use by his office" impracticable."

"The ONDCP Media Campaign has not produced a VNR since well before the GAO [2004] ruling on the HHS VNRs May 19 [that they constituted covert propaganda because the source was not identified]," Walters said in a letter to GAO. "Further, ONDCP believes that the GAO guidance on "prepackaged news stories" issued to federal agencies on Feb. 17, 2005, sets forth a requirement for viewer notification which is inherently incompatible with contemporary newsgathering methods, thus rendering VNR's impracticable. In any event, ONDCP has no plans to produce any further VNRs."

It was unclear whether ONDCP was saying it was not practical for it to label the VNR's, or to count on broadcasters not to edit out the disclosure if it did, but either way, ONDCP was citing the GAO opinion as its guidance and seemed to be swearing off VNR's of any type.

GAO, for its part, stood up for VNRs, at least in general.

In response to Walters, it pointed out that its February advisory dealt with only unidentified prepackaged news stories, adding "prepackaged news stories can be utilized without violating the law, so long as there is clear disclosure to the television viewing audience that this material was prepared by or in cooperation with the government or agency."

GAO's clarification came in response to Walters' review of a GAO report, released Thursday, on the ONDCP's billion-dollar anti-drug media campaign. That campaign included ads, VNRs, and the controversial practice of compensating programmers for working anti-drug messages into their storylines.

Almost as an afterthought, the GAO inserted a footnote about its VNR opinion, which Walters responded to.

Congress had asked for a review of spending after questions arose over how much ad agency Ogilvy & Mather was spending on the actual ad buys and how much was going to other services. (GAO concluded that of the $520 million spent between 2002 and 2004, $373 million, or 72%, was spent on media buys, while $147 million went to "other services.")

The news that ONDCP, a member of the Executive Office of the President, was taking GAO's "no" on VNRs for an answer, while GAO itself was qualifying that "no," is quite a switch.

Following ONDCP's May 2004 advisory on the illegality of the HHS VNRs, the Justice Department put out its own advisory July 30 taking issue with that finding and concluding instead that fact-based unidentified VNR's were not covert propaganda. (Appropriations bills for government agencies include language that none of their budgets can be spent on propaganda, which would make spending money on that propaganda illegal).

"We do not agree with GAO that the 'covert propaganda' prohibition applies simply because an agency's role in producing and disseminating information is undisclosed or 'covert' regardless of whether the content is 'propaganda,' wrote Deputy Assistant Attorney General Steven Bradbury in a memorandum to HHS.

Citing the Justice opinion, not GAO's, as its controlling legal authority, the administration issued no ban on the use of unidentified VNRs, though it advised caution.

Friday,  an Office of Management and Budget spokesman said ONDCP's action did not signal a change in administration policy toward the GAO opinion on VNRs. "The adminstration maintains that the use of VNRs is proper and permissible as long as it complies with the [Justice] memo." That has upset some in Congress, where criticism of the administration's PR policies has been heightened by pay-for-play revelations involving conservative columnist Armstrong Williams and others.

The President referenced the Justice memo in a press conference earlier this month in which he defended truthful VNRs as long-standing government practice and said broadcasters should supply the disclosures if that was a problem.

In the same press conference, he said he was putting a stop to pay-for-play deals like Williams' $240,000 contract.

The administration has been criticized for VNRs on healthcare and drug policy, among others, that feature actors posing as reporters and can be mistaken for news stories without disclaimers.

The President said earlier this month that it is up to local stations to make those disclosures.

"Justice says that these pieces are in the law if based on facts not advocacy," said the President. "Stations, if there is a deep concern, ought to tell viewers what they are watching."

For her part, Director of Homeland Security and Justice Laurie Eckstrand said she was surprised that ONDCP responded to the footnote on the GAO VNR.