WASHINGTON, D.C.—Democratic Senators John Kerry and Frank Lautenberg have introduced a bill requiring visible disclaimers to run for the duration of any government-produced video news releases.
While the Senate Commerce Committee postponed its hearing on the bill until after next week’s spring break, in order to allow potential witnesses to prepare their testimony, many observers believe the bill has a better than 50-50 chance of passing.
The bill, called the Truth in Broadcasting Act, requires “all pre-packaged news stories produced by executive branch agencies” to contain a continuously visible disclaimer stating “Produced by the U.S. Government,” when they air on domestic media outlets.
Current FCC rules require broadcasters to identify externally-produced material of a political or controversial nature, but there is no requirement that broadcasters carry the disclaimer throughout the piece.
The bill would clarify the debate over government VNRs. The General Accountability Office believe unidentified VNRs violate rules against government propaganda, but the Justice Department says VNRs are okay as long as they are factual in nature.
“I am really looking forward to the hearing on our bill,” said Kerry last week. “The American people deserve to know that they’re not just watching the administration’s spin on their local newscasts—they’re paying for it, too…. In a time of record-budget deficits, we need to address this abuse of the public trust and waste of money.”
The use of VNRs attracted considerable attention last year after complaints about a VNR produced by the Department of Health & Human Services to promote the new prescription drug law. Those VNRs were presented by a public relations executive, Karen Ryan, who signed off with the line, “I’m Karen Ryan, reporting.” Critics suggested that sign off was misleading, since it created the impression that Ryan was an actual reporter.
Since then, the debate over VNRs has widened, fueled by the Education Department’s payments to conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, for services including the production of VNRs, and more recently by the use of VNRs by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in his campaign to introduce performance-related pay for teachers and to reduce nursing staff levels in the state’s hospitals.