Issue 97, Spring 2005

Which is worse? A fleeting glimpse of a Janet Jackson’s breast, or a commentator hyping a government program without disclosing he was paid to do it? A single expletive, or phoney news reports about Medicare from a former reporter?

Congress and the FCC bemoan broadcast indecency, but are strangely quiet about broadcast inaccuracy. The Department of Education paid Armstrong Williams, the TV commentator, $240,000 to tout administration policies, and pseudo-journalist, Jeff Gannon (aka James Guckert), attended White House briefings for the apparent purpose of lobbing softball questions at strategically opportune moments. Yet neither has been the subject of Congressional outrage.

According to the New York Times, the State Department produced 59 “video news releases,” or VNRs, which masquerade as news but in fact are produced by the government to promote its policies. These “good news” reports paint a rosy picture of aid programs for Afghani women, humanitarian relief in Iraq, and domestic disaster aid. The Department of Agriculture spends $32 million a year to create about 90 “mission messages.” These are likely the tip of the iceberg.

There’s no reason why government agencies shouldn’t release information in electronic form. But press reports are issued on official letterhead, so it’s reasonable to expect VNRs to clearly identify that they are government-created.

Instead, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), some agencies “commissioned and distributed prepackaged news stories…that were designed to be indistinguishable from news stories produced by private news broadcasters.” The Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress confirms such practices. The administration denies wrong-doing and says that broadcasters are responsible for mistaken impressions created by government ads.

GAO charges that some of these “public relations activities” are illegal, but the Department of Justice and Office of Management and Budget disagree. They claim that “informational” governmental communications need not identify their source, even if the communications present partial and misleading information.

Information? Propaganda? Like the famed Shakespearean rose, it hardly matters what name is used. They smell the same.