In all of the hubbub over federal public relations contracts, at least one agency has gotten a bad rap, says Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform.
Davis said yesterday that the Government Accountability Office was wrong Jan. 4 when it ruled that the Office of National Drug Control Policy broke federal law last year by preparing prepackaged news stories that did not disclose to television viewers that the government had produced them.
The video news releases, which featured narrators "reporting" on the Bush administration's anti-drug campaign, constituted "covert propaganda" and violated a ban against publicity and propaganda, the GAO found.
Davis disagreed, saying in an interview that if anyone had a duty to disclose that the videos were government-produced, it was the news organizations that put them on the air. Davis noted that the external packaging clearly labeled the videos as government products.
"I don't think there's any legal violation," he said. "I would not want to start muzzling government organizations on this because of the way that this stuff is handled by the media."
Davis said Congress directed the drug-control office to engage in media campaigns to help prevent and reduce drug abuse among young people.
In a Jan. 19 letter, Davis and Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) urged the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, to withdraw its ruling and reconsider the law.
"GAO's analysis in this case is fundamentally flawed because it is inconsistent with ONDCP's express authorization to conduct a media campaign . . . and does not distinguish between deliberate concealment of the source by the government from the news media and subsequent concealment of the source from the public by the news media," the lawmakers wrote (emphasis theirs).
Critics cite the videos -- and similar prepackaged news stories issued by the Department of Health and Human Services last year to tout the Medicare drug benefit -- as evidence that the Bush administration is using tax dollars to promote its policies by surreptitious means. Recent revelations that the Education Department produced a similar video news release on the No Child Left Behind law and paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote the law further stoked the controversy.
Thomas A. Riley, spokesman for the anti-drug office, said it stopped using the videos, which cost $155,000, in May after the GAO ruling on the Medicare videos. Officials believe the videos are legal, he said, "but if it's going to be controversial or going to be a distraction, it's just not worth it for us."
Riley said the office's use of such videos began in 1998 during the Clinton administration. He provided a copy of one from 1999. The video, about an anti-drug Web site, includes suggested language for anchors to read, as well as images and a sound bite from an America Online official. Unlike some Bush-era videos, it does not have a narrator resembling a reporter, and the material amounts to raw footage rather than a story that could air with no changes.
Bush said last month that agencies should no longer hire commentators or journalists to promote policies. Democrats have asked the GAO to investigate agencies' public relations contracts.
Susan A. Poling, managing associate general counsel at the GAO, declined to comment on the Davis letter, saying it is an open case.
Last month, when the GAO issued its letter on the drug-control office's videos, Poling said: "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."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on Davis's committee, said the GAO has the right standard -- and Davis and Souder have the wrong one.
"Their position is straight out of George Orwell," Waxman said in a statement. "It's astonishing that members [of Congress] would defend using federal taxpayers to deceive the public. Fabricating news reports is illegal and unethical."
Davis said that he has not evaluated the Medicare case, and that the Williams contract was wrong. He said his House committee may take up the issue of how government messages should be labeled.