White House anti-drug videos violate propaganda ban, GAO says

Finds there is no indication to public that government produced the tapes.

Videotape footage of people using drugs and interviews with federal officials discouraging their use that was produced by the White House drug control policy office, violate a legal ban on official propaganda because they were presented to the public without any indication they were produced by the government, according to a decision released Thursday by the Government Accountability Office.

GAO, in response to a request from Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., examined a series of "video news releases" prepared by the Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2002 to 2004 to determine whether they violated a legal prohibition on "covert propaganda." The ban was included in the appropriations legislation that funded ONDCP's media campaign to lower drug use among American youth.

The videotapes were complete, prepackaged new stories, GAO found. They were sent to media outlets to be used "as news reports, without the need for any production effort," the agency wrote in its 17-page decision.

The video packages were narrated by unseen people who acted as reporters covering a press conference or other ONDCP activity, as well as officials involved in the anti-drug campaign, according to GAO. "Each story is accompanied by proposed 'lead-in' and 'closing' remarks to be spoken by television station news anchors," the agency found.

Some of the tapes included references by name to the narrators, one of whom was called Mike Morris. "Many of the suggested anchor remarks include a phrase like, 'Mike Morris has the story,' or 'Mike Morris has more,' " GAO found. The narrators were hired to read scripts prepared and approved by ONDCP. They weren't affiliated with any news organizations.

ONDCP's estimates show that the video footage reached more than 22 million households, GAO noted, "without disclosing to any of those viewers-the real audience-that the products they were watching, which 'reported' on the activities of a government agency, were actually prepared by that government agency, not by a seemingly independent third party. This is the essence of the 'covert propaganda' violation."

A spokesman for the White House drug office said GAO was "making a mountain out of a molehill," adding the video releases contain footage that is commonly used in media campaigns.

Congress authorized the drug policy office to spend funds on a national media campaign that would target young viewers not only through television news, but also through radio, the Internet and entertainment programming on film and television, said ONDCP spokesman Tom Riley.

Providing news organizations with video news releases, including interviews with officials as well as ancillary footage, known as B-roll, is standard media campaign practice, Riley said. The tapes average about four minutes in length and feature several components, including the interviews and some B-roll footage of people using illicit drugs, Riley said. Television stations typically "slice and dice" in the editing process and use the pieces that best fit their stories, he said, adding they usually don't use the entire tape.

GAO acknowledged that the news organizations receiving the videotapes would certainly know they came from ONDCP, because they bore identifying information. But, GAO questioned whether audiences realized the tapes were coming from the government. In this case, GAO said, viewers couldn't have known ONDCP had produced what they were watching.

Referring to a decision in a similar case, the production and distribution of video news releases by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, GAO said, "CMS did not indicate that its stories about the government were, in fact, prepared by the government." In May 2004, GAO found those tapes violated a propaganda prohibition.

ONDCP's general counsel, Edward Jurith, argued that video news releases are commonly used in television media. "They are produced in the same manner as if produced by a television news organization" and are "a popular means of conducting news media outreach [that is] widespread and widely known," Jurith wrote in a letter to GAO.

GAO responded that "our analysis of the proper use of funds is not based upon the norms in the public relations and media industries."

Riley said the organization informed Congress of its activities, and officials believed they were acting as Congress wanted when they produced and distributed the news releases. Following GAO's decision last May that the CMS tapes violated the propaganda ban, however, the drug office elected to stop producing its video news releases, Riley said.

ONDCP spent more than $154,000 to produce and distribute five of seven videos GAO examined. The office hired three public relations and communications firms to produce and distribute the tapes. Fleishman-Hillard Inc. was the lead contractor, and Gourvitz Communications and Harbour Media were subcontractors.

GAO noted that other federal agencies have violated bans on using appropriated funds for propaganda or publicity purposes. In 1987, the State Department paid consultants to prepare and publish newspaper articles and opinion pieces supporting the Reagan administration's policies in Central America. The pieces were presented as the position of persons not associated with the government.

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