Forget Jeff Gannon

Forget Armstrong Williams. Forget Jayson Blair and Karen Ryan. The real scandal is the Office of Broadcasting Services (part of the State Department), which has been producing news segments that are distributed to major networks. The Office of Broadcasting Services, along with the PR arms of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture, among others, make “informative” news segments touting particular Bush administration actions ranging from Bush’s controversial prescription drugs program to the war in Afghanistan. These segments are then inserted seamlessly into news broadcasts without any attribution, appearing to the home viewer as if they were produced by the news stations that broadcast them.

But, wait a second, you might say, isn’t the spread of domestic propaganda prohibited by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948? The Smith-Mundt Act allowed the broadcast of pro-government news abroad but not in the United States. According to those highly ethical folks at the State Department, Smith-Mundt doesn’t apply to them, just to Voice of America (not that I’m endorsing Voice of America’s role of spreading propaganda overseas), so there’s no need to worry there. Of course, these broadcasts are merely intended to “inform” the public, not to persuade them to assent to Bush’s policies. But a segment about Bush’s prescription drugs policy that makes no mention of the bill’s many critics aired on at least 40 stations in some form or another. Another report, apparently by WHBQ-Memphis’s Tish Clark, which modestly touts U.S. efforts in helping to liberate the women of Afghanistan, actually consisted of interviews conducted by State Department contractors, with Clark re-recording their questions.

Like Tish Clark, news people all around the country are shocked by this news. When the Times interviewed several station news directors, all of them endorsed the view that stations should identify the origins of these “video news releases,” but many of these stations were discovered to have engaged in precisely that practice. When The Times rudely mentioned this detail, the same station managers stopped taking their phone calls. However, Karen Ryan, who participated as a “reporter” for many of these broadcasts notes that the line between network news and “video news releases” isn’t always clear, commenting in the Times article, “It’s almost the same thing.” While the Times is quick to insist on the differences between the two, I’m less convinced. There is little benefit for local TV stations, already struggling financially, to spend their small resources in investigative reporting. And there’s even less incentive in admitting that the station is using video news releases provided by the government. In addition, there’s little incentive for the Federal Communications Commission, nominated by the President, to enforce ethics guidelines that encourage networks to disclose the origins of their news segments.

To be honest, I’m no longer sure if this kind of news report is even remotely surprising, much less shocking. It feeds into our already exisiting cynicism towards the mainstream media. This is why I think that Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed misrepresents the real point. While the Bush administration has spent more than twice as much on public relations as Clinton did during his second, Monicagate-shadowed second term, both recent presidents have spent very heavily on PR. The scandal isn’t that certain media outlets are partisan. The scandal is that there’s no real difference between news reports and video news releases.

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