The Bush administration has rolled out a $100 million campaign to publicize its new Medicare law, which is supposed to assist elderly Americans with the costs of their prescription medicines. But part of the campaign is proving to be as controversial as the law.
Federal investigators are examining pre-produced television news stories, written and paid for by the government, which have the appearance of legitimate news segments delivered by independent reporters. Recorded in both English and Spanish, they were sent to local television stations across the country to publicize the new law.
The tape even includes a suggested lead-in for anchors to read. But it's up to local news stations to decide whether to air the stories, voiced by those posing as reporters, in their news programs.
The General Accounting Office said it will examine the video releases and the "propriety of using appropriated funds to support these activities."
Last week, the GAO determined that the Bush administration's Medicare television commercials, also paid for by tax dollars, were legal. Some Democrats had argued they were blatantly political.
Those same Democrats have called the video news stories nothing more than commercials.
"This is political advertising that is masquerading as public information," said Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.
Video News Releases Are Not New
Video news releases, as they are called, are not new. Private companies use them, and government agencies have previously relied on them for subjects ranging from the flu to drunk driving to Head Start.
The Clinton administration sent out news stories on its Medicare proposal in the 1990s.
The segments released during President Clinton's administration, however, clearly stated at the beginning that they were produced by the government — something the Bush video news releases do not. But the Bush administration insists it has a legal obligation to educate seniors about the new Medicare law, and it claims the staged news segments help in achieving that goal.
"It provides factual information. I mean, that's what can't be lost here. The information in the video news release is factual," said Kevin Keane, assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services.
But some news ethicists disagree.
"If the viewer thinks that the person is a news person, they are being deceived. So on a simple ethical basis, the government is deceiving people if these things air," said Tom Rosenstiel with the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
ABCNEWS' Lisa Stark contributed to this report.