The White House has defended the administration’s use of video news releases that are sent to television stations across the country and frequently used without any acknowledgment of the government’s role in their production.
Questions have been raised about government media practices after the revelation that conservative columnists were paid to promote administration policies and did not tell their audiences that they had received federal money.
President Bush, after the practice was disclosed, said it was wrong and ordered that it stop.
The video news releases – from the Pentagon, Agriculture Department, Census Bureau and other agencies – have the appearance of other segments in news programmes and frequently are not identified by local stations as being produced by the government.
Lack of disclosure
US press secretary Scott McClellan suggested the lack of disclosure was the fault of the broadcasters, not the government.
White House official McClellan
“Many federal agencies have used this for quite some time as an informational tool to provide factual information to the American people,” he said on Monday.
“And my understanding is that when these informational releases are sent out, it’s very clear to the TV stations where they are coming from.”
He said the Justice Department opinion on the video releases noted “the importance of making sure that it is factual information and not crossing the line into advocacy”.
Democratic Senators Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey criticised the Justice Department’s memo and asked Bush to order that it be rescinded.
Deceiving the public
“It is wrong to deceive the public with the creation of a phony news story,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is also illegal.”
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said agency videos included “basic facts and material on what’s going on in Afghanistan or Iraq or, often in the United States, related to important issues”.
He said the material was not propaganda and was clearly marked as coming from the US government.
Boucher said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice believed more transparency was better.
He said: “We’ve actually moved even beyond that and to start putting some kind of an intro screen to everything that says it’s brought to you by the Department of State so that anybody who gets that video will know where it came from.”
The Justice Department concluded last week that the practice was appropriate as long as the videos presented factual information about government programmes.
“Many federal agencies have used this for quite some time as an informational tool to provide factual information to the American people”
The memo was sent to heads of federal departments and agencies.
“The prohibition does not apply where there is no advocacy of a particular viewpoint, and therefore it does not apply to the legitimate provision of information concerning the programmes administered by an agency,” according to the Justice Department memo.
The advice conflicts with the opinion of the Government Accountability Office, which is the investigative arm of Congress.
The GAO says that video news releases amount to illegal “covert propaganda” when they fail to make plain that the government is behind the releases.