Monday, March 15, 2004

Bribes and the Bribing Bribers

From the New York Times:

WASHINGTON, March 14 — Federal investigators are scrutinizing television segments in which the Bush administration paid people to pose as journalists praising the benefits of the new Medicare law, which would be offered to help elderly Americans with the costs of their prescription medicines.

The videos are intended for use in local television news programs. Several include pictures of President Bush receiving a standing ovation from a crowd cheering as he signed the Medicare law on Dec. 8.

The materials were produced by the Department of Health and Human Services, which called them video news releases, but the source is not identified. Two videos end with the voice of a woman who says, "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting."

But the production company, Home Front Communications, said it had hired her to read a script prepared by the government.

Now, I'm not so naiive that I haven't heard of video news releases--hell, PR firms use them all the time. But the Bush Administration making use of such tactics without so much as making a timely disclosure is a whole new level of what I believe Senator Kerry refers to--correctly--as extremism.


One question is whether the government might mislead viewers by concealing the source of the Medicare videos, which have been broadcast by stations in Oklahoma, Louisiana and other states.

Federal law prohibits the use of federal money for "publicity or propaganda purposes" not authorized by Congress. In the past, the General Accounting Office has found that federal agencies violated this restriction when they disseminated editorials and newspaper articles written by the government or its contractors without identifying the source...

Other documents suggest the scope of the publicity campaign: $12.6 million for advertising this winter, $18.5 million to publicize drug discount cards this spring, about $18.5 million this summer, $30 million for a year of beneficiary education starting this fall and $44 million starting in the fall of 2005.

"Video news releases" have been used for more than a decade. Pharmaceutical companies have done particularly well with them, producing news-style health features about the afflictions their drugs are meant to cure.

The videos became more prominent in the late 1980's, as more and more television stations cut news-gathering budgets and were glad to have packaged news bits to call their own, even if they were prepared by corporations seeking to sell products.

I don't recall personally whether or not I saw any of the videos that were broadcast here in Louisiana, although I've noticed occasional "reports" on the local news that were not local in the slightest. Nor were they "parent" reports from ABC, CBS, or CNN (neither the local NBC nor Fox affiliate broadcasts local news in the Baton Rouge market). And, frankly, it's not like genuine local news would be much better. I've already posted to the effect that Bush intends to use local news as a "stealth" strategy, and now it appears that he won't just work for favorable coverage (although that's more-or-less for the asking). He's producing the segment itself, which erases the line between journalist (again, admittedly for local news, "journalist" is pretty generous)--sorry, between journalist and figure being covered.

That ain't news--it's propaganda.

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