FCC asked to investigate agencies' video news releases

Senate Commerce ranking member Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, has urged the Federal Communications to investigate the use of government-produced video news releases by local broadcasters that do not provide attribution.

Clips of videos created by federal agencies have been broadcast frequently on local news programs without reference to the fact that they were produced by the government, according to press reports.

"Certain broadcasters are editing government-created VNRs to make it appear as if such information is the result of independent news-gathering," Inouye said in a letter sent Tuesday to the FCC and released Wednesday.

He added that it "seems to violate FCC rules requiring attribution for the airing of 'any political broadcast matter' or 'the discussion of a controversial issue of public importance.' "

Asked about the practice at a Wednesday news conference, President Bush said: "There is a Justice Department opinion that says these pieces are within the law so long as they're based upon facts, not advocacy. And I expect our agencies to adhere to that ruling, to that Justice Department opinion."

But he added: "I think it would be helpful if local stations then disclosed to their viewers that this was based upon a factual report and they chose to use it. But evidently in some cases that's not the case."

Health and Human Servics Secretary Mike Leavitt defended his agency's use of video news releases that are not clearly identified as government productions, despite a Government Accountability Office opinion that such communications violate a ban on propaganda.

At a Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Leavitt said educating 41 million Medicare beneficiaries about the new prescription drug benefit that begins next year "is a very big challenge" and the department would use whatever means available to communicate needed information.

He said "we will follow guidance of our legal counsel," which differs from that of the GAO.

Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, got Leavitt to agree to provide the subcommittee with the budget for public relations, including contracts with public relations firms. The videos that GAO found inappropriate last year were produced by outside contractors.

Harkin said he did not object so much to the department producing such videos, but to the fact that they were not clearly identified as government-produced.

"We send out letters and information all the time," he said. "But at least we sign our names. Shouldn't HHS sign this stuff?"

Said Leavitt, who was not at the department during last year's flap over the Medicare information, "That seems like a logical approach."

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