Thursday, May 12, 2005

Senate Commerce Committee Hears Testimony on Propaganda Disclosure Legislation

The Senate Commerce Committee today heard testimony on proposed legislation that would require disclosure of government propaganda.

As reported earlier this week by JABBS), the "Truth in Broadcasting Act," authored by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and John Kerry (D-MA), would establish permanent federal law that video news releases (VNRs) and other prepackaged propaganda would include a disclaimer that would run continuously throughout the pieces.

Today's hearing included comments from Jonathan S. Adelstein, commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, Susan Poling, managing associate general counsel of the Government Accountability Office, Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, and Judith Turner Phair, president and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.

Everyone seemed to agree the Bush administration was wrong to send out unidentified VNRs to local news stations. The only difference of opinion was how to deal with such propaganda -- government regulation or self-regulation?

"The issue of concern with pre-packaged news stories is that, absent proper disclosure, listeners and viewers may believe that these stories are produced by bona fide news organizations, rather than third-parties who may have a vested interest in the content of the story," said Adelstein. "The seriousness with which this committee is treating this matter is entirely consistent with the historical concern of the committee and Congress as a whole."

Adelstein said that pre-packaged news stories -- VNRs -- are attractive to busy newsrooms that are "trying to fill longer news windows with fewer journalistic resources."

Dating back to the Radio Act of 1927, Congress has required that radio and television broadcasters disclose when programming is sponsored, and the identity of that sponsor.

"As a result, for over sixty years, our rules have required a disclosure to be made, in the case of controversial issue or political programming," Adelstein said.


VNRs have recently been in the news, with questions arising about the appropriateness of the Bush administration using pre-packaged news without clear disclosure of the government's role in creating the VNRs.

The Justice Department (for) and the GAO (against) reached different legal conclusions regarding the use of pre-packaged news without proper disclosure. Adelstein said the FCC has no jurisdiction regarding propaganda laws, and therefor has taken no position on it.

But Adelstein reiterated the FCC's on-going policy regarding disclosure, and said the Lautenberg/Kerry legislation "would be an effective complement to our existing sponsorship identification rules."


Poling provided the reasoning behind the GAO's conclusion earlier this year that the Bush administration was using VNRs as "covert propaganda."

"The target audience -- the viewing public -- was unaware that the material was produced by the government," Poling said. "The story packages were clearly designed to be aired exactly as the agency produced them and were intended to resemble traditional news stories. They were narrated by government contract personnel who portrayed reporters and included suggested anchor lead-in scripts, announcing it as a news story by the purported reporter, which facilitated the unaltered use of the story package."

In the GAO's opinion, "the story packages contained no statement or other reference to alert television viewers to the fact that the agency was the source of the purported news story," she said. "These characteristics may lead viewers to believe, wrongly, that the piece was an actual news story produced by the local television station and narrated by a real reporter. Therefore, we concluded that the prepackaged news stories constituted covert propaganda."


Cochran, of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, suggested the industry should not be punished for the "mistakes of the few," and favored allowing the industry to regulate itself, within the framework of the association's disclosure guidelines.

Also siding against the legislation was Phair, of the Public Relations Society of America. Like Cochran, Phair agreed with the need for disclosure, but disagreed with the legislation's provision that VNRs be identified with a disclaimer that would run continuously throughout the piece.

"Disclosure to the public is ultimately the responsibility of broadcasters," Phair said, offering a comment reminiscent of one made by President Bush last month.


Blogger David Drake said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Dante Botkins said...

I''ll be back. Later :)

8:33 AM  

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