The Government Accountability Office warned federal departments last week against using a popular public relations tool that already has landed two agencies in hot water for breaking federal anti-propaganda laws.
In a Feb. 17 memo, Comptroller General David M. Walker reminded department and agency heads that prepackaged news stories that do not identify the government as their source violate provisions in annual appropriations laws that ban covert propaganda.
"It is not enough that the contents of an agency's communication may be unobjectionable," Walker wrote. "Neither is it enough for an agency to identify itself to the broadcasting organization as the source of the prepackaged news story."
Prepackaged news stories, sometimes known as video news releases, have become an increasingly common public relations tool among government agencies and in industry. They are designed to resemble broadcast news stories, complete with narrators who can be easily mistaken for reporters and suggested introductory language for TV anchors to read. Some news organizations have run them without changes and without identifying them as government-produced.
Within the last year, the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, has rapped the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Department of Health and Human Services for distributing prepackaged news stories that do not disclose within the story that the government is the source of the material.
"[T]elevision-viewing audiences did not know that stories they watched on television news programs about the government were, in fact, prepared by the government," Walker wrote. "We concluded that those prepackaged news stories violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition."
Walker noted that agencies may legally distribute prepackaged stories "so long as there is clear disclosure to the television viewing audience" that the material was prepared by the government or its contractors.
"Agency officials should scrutinize any proposed prepackaged news stories to ensure appropriate disclosures," he wrote, adding that GAO officials were available to answer questions in particular cases.
Last month, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform, said the GAO was wrong in ruling against the drug control office because the agency's mission is to produce media campaigns to prevent and reduce drug abuse. Davis and Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) sent Walker a letter urging him to withdraw the ruling and reconsider the law. They wrote that it was the news organizations, not the agency, that had a duty to disclose the source of the video news release.
Walker declined to overturn the ruling in a Feb. 15 letter. He wrote that the drug control office was bound by the disclosure requirement and that appropriations laws govern the behavior of federal agencies, not of independent news organizations.