Shortly before last year's Super Bowl, local news stations across the country aired a story by Mike Morris describing plans for a new White House ad campaign on the dangers of drug abuse.
What viewers did not know was that Morris is not a journalist and his "report" was produced by the government, actions that constituted illegal "covert propaganda," according to an investigation by the Government Accountability Office.
In the second ruling of its kind, the investigative arm of Congress this week scolded the Bush administration for distributing phony prepackaged news reports that include a "suggested live intro" for anchors to read, interviews with Washington officials and a closing that mimics a typical broadcast news sign off.
Although television stations knew the materials were produced by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, there was nothing in the two-minute, prepackaged reports that would indicate to viewers that they came from the government or that Morris, a former journalist, was working under contract for the government.
"You think you are getting a news story, but what you are getting is a paid announcement," said Susan A. Poling, managing associate general counsel at the GAO. "What is objectionable about these is the fact the viewer has no idea their tax dollars are being used to write and produce this video segment."
In May, the GAO concluded that the Department of Health and Human Services violated two federal laws with similar fake news reports touting the administration's new Medicare drug benefit. When that opinion was released, officials at the drug control office decided to stop the practice, spokesman Thomas A. Riley said.
"Our lawyers disagree with the GAO interpretation," he said. Nevertheless, if the video releases were going to be "controversial or create an appearance of a problem," the agency decided it was not worth pursuing, he said.
The prepackaged news pieces represent a fraction of the anti-drug messages distributed by the office, Riley said. Production and distribution of the video news releases cost about $155,000.
Riley said broadcast stations were fully aware they were receiving materials akin to printed news releases that producers could "slice and dice it however they want."
In one video, titled "Urging Parents to Get the Facts Straight on Teen Marijuana Use," news stations were provided a script for the news anchor. It reads: "Despite the fact that marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug among today's youth, many parents admit they're still not taking the drug seriously. Now, the nation's experts in health, education and safety have joined the Drug Czar to speak directly to parents about the very real risks of teen marijuana use. Mike Morris has more."
After interview snippets with John Walters, who heads the drug control policy office, and other experts, the story closes with the voiceover: "This is Mike Morris reporting."
In another, the announcer appears to be "reporting" on a news conference by drug control officials, when "in reality, they are just paid to say a script," Poling said. "In essence, they're actors."
The drug control agency distributed at least seven prepackaged news reports to 770 TV stations. At least 300 news shows used some portion of the materials, though it was impossible to determine how many aired the full prepackaged story or just portions such as "sound bites," Riley said.
If the videos had been identified as coming from the federal agency, that would have been legal, Poling said. But the television package looks like authentic independent journalism.
"The critical element of covert propaganda is the concealment of the agency's role in sponsoring the materials," GAO wrote to Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who requested the Jan. 4 report.
"It is illegal to use taxpayer dollars to influence public opinion surreptitiously," Waxman said yesterday. "Unfortunately, this is the second time in less than a year that GAO has caught the Bush administration violating a fundamental principle of open government."