Government Blurring the Line on News?


WASHINGTON, March 16, 2005 — -- President Bush today defended his administration's use of video news releases packaged as news stories, which have been sent to local television stations across the country and sometimes broadcast with no indication they were made by the government.

A report, for example, about the president's controversial education bill -- which was presented as news on many local stations including those in Houston and Washington -- ended with the words: "This is a program that gets an 'A-plus.' In Washington, Karen Ryan reporting."

But Karen Ryan is not a reporter. She works in public relations and was hired by the Bush administration to voice the government-produced news stories.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- ruled last month at least two of the broadcast reports -- ones about Medicare and illegal narcotics -- were "covert propaganda" and illegal.

"It was not clear from the prepackaged news stories who the source of the information was," David Walker, comptroller general of the GAO, told ABC News. "It was pretty clear that these were intended to go directly to the viewing audience without any editing."

According to Walker, this creates both legal and ethical issues, "not only on behalf of the people who are putting these together, but frankly on behalf of the news organizations who are using them."

Bush said in a press conference today there is nothing wrong with releasing the videos, basing his argument on two administration memos uncovered this week, written by Steven G. Bradbury, principal deputy assistant attorney general, and Joshua B. Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

"There is a Justice Department opinion that says these pieces are OK so long as they're based upon facts, not advocacy," said Bush. "And I expect our agencies to adhere to that ruling."

But the GAO investigation found the prepackaged news stories did not always stick to the facts.

"Some of the materials that we've seen clearly are advocacy so, by definition, they violate their own guidance," Walker said.

For instance, the GAO found a report on Medicare -- broadcast as "news" in Dallas, Atlanta and Baltimore -- to be "not strictly factual," and containing "notable omissions and weaknesses."

The Clinton administration was the first to use such video news releases. Public relations executives interviewed by ABC News say the reports cross a line when presented as if they are news.

"It should have said, 'This is Karen Ryan from the Department of Education.' I have strong ethical problems with not identifying the source," said Judith T. Phair, president and chief executive officer of the Public Relations Society of America.

At a news conference in January, after the disclosure that his administration paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams nearly a quarter of a million dollars to publicly support his policies, the president said, "There needs to be a nice, independent relationship between the White House and the press, the administration and the press."

But in his memo, Bolten backs off that declaration, stating it is up to each department or agency if they want to enter into a "specific contract with members of the news media, for consulting or other services."

It's a further blurring of the rules in an already muddled situation.

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