Television broadcasters must disclose to viewers the origin of video news releases produced by the government or corporations when the material runs on the public airwaves, the Federal Communications Commission said yesterday.
The FCC's ruling comes as video news releases produced by the Bush administration and aired as part of local television news reports have come under attack from critics who call them unlabeled Republican propaganda.
Some members of Congress say greater disclosure is needed. Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) plan to introduce an amendment to a junk fax bill today that would require government agencies -- such as the Department of Health and Human Services, whose video news release on Medicare and Medicaid was deemed propaganda by the Government Accountability Office last year -- to tell viewers that a clip was produced and paid for by the U.S. government.
"The bottom line is, the government's role in these news stories needs to be disclosed," said Lautenberg, a member of the Commerce Committee, which will consider the amendment.
Yesterday, the FCC unanimously clarified rules applying to broadcasters, saying they must disclose to the viewer the origins of video news releases, though the agency does not specify what form the disclosure must take.
"We have a responsibility to tell broadcasters they have to let people know where the material is coming from," said FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein, a Democrat. "Viewers are hoodwinked into thinking it's really a news story when it might be from the government or a big corporation trying to influence the way they think. This will put them in a better position to decide for themselves what to make of it."
Critics of the video news releases say their style -- often featuring an actor portraying a reporter interviewing a government official, giving the government's side of a issue -- easily can be confused for the journalistic reports they appear alongside of. The TV news industry is increasingly inclined to air such releases in an era of 24-hour news channels and shrinking budgets that hamper news organizations' ability to produce their own reports, experts say.
Corporations also produce and distribute video news releases to promote products or burnish their image.
The Lautenberg-Kerry amendment follows a GAO recommendation to include on-screen disclaimers during the video news release, explaining the piece was produced by the U.S. government, Lautenberg staffers said. The GAO report said the administration had violated the law by using federal money to produce propaganda.
"The government makes these things," said Dan Katz, Lautenberg's chief counsel. "If they would identify themselves upfront it would be a much more efficient way of dealing with this problem."
The Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget disagreed with the GAO's finding.