Accuracy in Media

The New York Times, which suffered through its own fake news scandal in the Jayson Blair case, thought it had caught the Bush administration in similar practices in a March 12 front-page story on the use of video news releases, or VNRs, by the federal government. It was headlined, “The Message Machine: How the Government Makes News; Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged News.” Over 6,000 words were devoted to the matter.

It was an issue tailor-made for Senator Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, who had previously issued a statement declaring that the Bush administration’s use of VNRs constituted illegal “covert propaganda.” Clinton had declared, “It is critical to the credibility of an independent news media that covert government propaganda be rejected for use by news organizations.” But it turns out that the Clinton administration had produced them as well.

The Times story led to charges that the Bush administration had filmed “phony” news segments, complete with “phony” news reporters in expensive govern-ment studios, in order to fool the people. With the “complicity” of television news stations, it was said that “millions” of viewers saw the material broadcast in whole or in part as a news report. It was quickly termed a scandal. How could the administration do such a thing?

Other media, especially Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, quickly followed the Times’ lead, doing stories about the Bush administration’s use of VNRs and public relations agencies. But what information did media withhold from you the news consumer?

Here are the highlights of what an AIM investigation found:

  • The Clinton administration produced the same unlabeled prepackaged news segments, under the same department, on the same topic (prescription drug benefit), using the same “tactics” that the Bush administration was lambasted for. The Democrats had done the very same thing. 

  • In 1996 David Bartlett, president of the Radio/Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), said this about political VNRs: “The White House doesn’t want you to know that they are spending taxpayers’ money peddling these phony interviews with [President Clinton.] I mean, that harms his credibility?members of Congress do it routinely.”

  • Back in 1994 attorney Robert B. Charles reported: “Moreover, Congress and the White House have gotten into the act. Congress creates VNRs in its own fully equipped, tax-payer-funded television station in the belly of the Rayburn Building in Washington. Meanwhile, the Clinton administration hires out, paying companies like Medialink of New York at taxpayer expense to transmit VNRs by satellite to stations around the country.”

  • Democratic senators and congressmen requested Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigations of what the Bush administration did. But the GAO will never review any Clinton administration VNRs because the 3-year statute of limitations governing such reviews has passed.

  • The New York Times story ran just one day before the first national “Sunshine Week,” (March 13-19, 2005), causing some in the media to contrast the Bush administration’s supposedly devious conduct with the media’s principled call for more open government. Ironically, most news outlets didn’t report that the RTNDA, the primary professional association of electronic journalists, itself produced a VNR on “Sunshine Week” and then used its website to suggest news organizations run the one-sided spots as news stories. This was the same behavior that the New York Times and other media were blasting the Bush administration for. 

  • A Nielsen Media Research survey conducted 15 years ago found that 78% of news directors said they used VNRs in some form weekly in their news broadcasts.

Video news releases are to television media what print news releases are to print media: a time-honored way of getting your message out to the press, in the hope they’ll cover it. VNRs often include footage, sound bites, and text. The controversy over so-called “pre-packaged news segments” featured in the Times’ March 12 story referenced recent decisions from the GAO that the production and dissemination of such news segments had run afoul of the prohibition against appropriating federal funds for the dissemination of “propaganda.” But this is the case only if the segments are not clearly identified as created by the government.

The Times report failed to emphasize that the GAO found just one part of the VNRs (namely the prepackaged segment) was out of compliance with the law regarding labeling requirements. The Times also failed to report that the GAO found the VNR package itself (which contained the segment) was clearly labeled and any news agency getting the VNRs would have known that the government was the source.

Despite the fact that VNRs have been used for decades by government and television news, the recent controversy has been framed by media as a uniquely Bush administration practice and problem.

The use of loaded word choices within articles sensationalized the story and gave the impression that the use of VNRs by government and television news was a new development. The following phrases from the New York Times report by David Barstow and Robin Stein added to the impression that this was a new and dramatic story about a unique Bush propaganda program:

  • “Some reports were produced to support the administration’s most cherished policies?”

  • “They often feature ‘interviews’ with senior administration officials in which questions are scripted and answers rehearsed.”

  • An examination of government-produced news reports offers a look inside a world where the traditional lines between public relations and journalism have become tangled….”

  • “It is a world where government-produced reports disappear into a maze of satellite transmissions?”

The Times report did mention that VNRs were produced by the Clinton administration, but no details were forthcoming.

Outrage expressed by Democratic senators and congressmen generated more media coverage and contributed to the sense this was a major Bush scandal. Back in March 2004, when the New York Times first  started covering this controversy, top Democrats called on television stations to refrain from using VNRs from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) promoting the new law offering a prescription drug benefit. 

In this case, Senators Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Frank Lautenberg, Jon Corzine, Debby Stabenow and John Edwards had signed a letter addressed to television network news directors calling the Bush Medicare VNRs “illegal” and “covert propaganda.” Station directors were urged to not run the allegedly misleading segments. Senators Kennedy and Lautenberg subsequently criticized the Bush Department of Justice for rejecting the GAO findings that the VNRs had violated the law. Kennedy and the other senators wrote: “It is wrong to deceive the public with the creation of a phony news story. It is also illegal.”

What the media didn’t want to highlight was the fact that the Clinton HHS had produced similar material. A simple telephone call to HHS revealed that. 

What the New York Times and other media didn’t tell you was this: That in 1999 the Clinton administration produced the same type of VNRs even on the same topic?the administration’s position on prescription drug benefits. The VNRs were produced by HHS under Donna Shalala. Like the Bush VNRs, the Clinton VNRs included prepackaged news stories that were not identified as having been produced by the government, and which featured what media called “phony” reporters.  Despite the fact that this information was reported in the recent GAO report, only the Bush VNRs became news, and a scandal. One exception was Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page who stated, “Such fake news came out of HHS under the Clinton administration, too.”

What did the GAO report say about the Clinton VNRs? GAO said that “Much like the story packages at issue here, the [1999] story packages contain footage of seniors engaging in various activities, then-HHS Secretary Donna Shalala appearing to answer questions regarding the provisions of proposed legislation ?and a report of the Administration’s proposal.”

Unlike the Bush VNR, which was about a Medicare law that had already been passed, the Clinton VNR promoted legislation that then-President Clinton wanted to pass. AIM also discovered that the Clinton administration produced VNRs on AIDS. The Clinton AIDS VNRs were used and broadcast by various television stations across the country and became the subject of a scholarly study published in 1996 by journalism and public relations expert Glen T. Cameron. (Journalism and Mass Com-munications Quarterly, Winter 1996). AIM found no media criticism of the practice, which occurred almost ten years ago.

The GAO reviews of 10 Bush VNRs (2 on Medicare and 8 on drug abuse prevention) were all initiated directly or indirectly by Democratic senators and congressmen. The Democrats can rest easy, however, because the GAO won’t be looking into any Clinton VNRs. Why? Because the statute of limitations concerning their compliance with the law has passed?something surely known to Democrats as they began their vendetta against Bush.

Manufactured Scandal

The Bush VNRs were being examined to see if certain agencies’ use of appropriated funds to produce prepackaged news stories contained in the VNRs constituted “covert propaganda” in violation of the publicity or propaganda prohibitions contained in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2004, the Consolidated Appropriations Resolution of 2003, and the Treasury and General Government Appropriations Act of 2002. It was the first time any government VNRs had been reviewed by the GAO.

With media turning a blind eye to the Clinton VNRs, and the GAO blocked by law from investigating them, it’s no wonder Senator Hillary Clinton could confidently work the Bush “scandal” to her own party’s benefit, telling the press that the Bush VNRs were political advertising masquerading as public information. When the media failed to report the political subtext, these cynical machinations were obscured from public view, and the Democratic agenda was advanced? actions which are the very definition of political propaganda. Indeed, the meld of political plotting with media complicity was exactly what the New York Times and the rest of media were accusing Bush of.

The Bush VNR reporter, Karen Ryan, has become a lightning rod for international criticism due to the Times coverage, even as the Clinton VNR reporter has remained a mystery. The Washington Post had reported in 2004 that “Democrats pounced on a New York Times report that HHS’s video news releases included the voice of a woman saying, ‘In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.'”

“Reporter” Karen Ryan

 In its most recent report, on March 12, the Times reported on Karen Ryan again, in addition to several other reporters paid to appear in the government VNRs. “Karen Ryan cringes at the phrase ‘covert propaganda,'” the article stated. “These are words for dictators and spies, and yet they have attached themselves to her like a pair of handcuffs.” But the Times did not review Clinton’s use of government-paid “reporters.” The 1999 Clinton VNRs had ended with the sign-off: “Lovell Brigham reporting.” Lovell Brigham was a political appointee, serving in the position of director of communications for HHS Secretary Donna Shalala.

“Sunshine Week” Turns Cloudy

The media exploited the VNR controversy just as media professionals were getting ready to begin their much-touted “Sunshine Week.” This was described as an attempt to pressure government to be more open with media and to shun unnecessary secrecy. Indeed, the flagship New York Times article appeared the day before “Sunshine Week” started: March 12.  Syndicated columnist Clarence Page contrasted the VNR scandal and the call by journalists for more government honesty and openness.

The media did not report, however, that the RTNDA created its own VNR for “Sunshine Week.” The RTNDA website suggested that television stations run the VNRs as news stories. In addition, the RTNDA magazine encouraged news organizations to “assign a reporter or anchor to at least re-track or re-purpose these spots.”  This amazing bit of hypocrisy was reported by Scott M. Libin, who is on the Leadership and Management faculty of the Poynter Institute. His article appeared on the Poynter Institute website but the scoop never made it to mainstream media. When he contacted RTNDA President Barbara Cochran for an explanation, RTNDA added the following sentences to the Web page containing the scripts: “As with any material from an outside source, if you use these materials you should label clearly where they came from. Keep in mind RTNDA’s Code of Ethics, which states that professional journalists should ‘clearly disclose the origin of information and label all material provided by outsiders.'” Cochran is also on Poy
tner’s National Advisory Board.

But AIM learned that:

  • VNRs are not new: Television news has been using VNRs (usually edited) in their news reports for two decades. Since 1990 there have been industry reports that such VNRs reach hundreds of millions of viewers of broadcast television network news and cable news.

  • While surprising to most news consumers, and despite periodic controversies that percolate to the surface over the labeling of VNRs, the use of VNRs in general is widely known and accepted by journalists, and has been reported on for over 15 years inside journalism/mass communication circles; namely in PR and marketing journals and in papers delivered at industry association meetings.

  • Previous reporting on the “fake news” scandal of VNRs has been termed sensationalistic. Fifteen years ago Marketing News noted that controversy over VNRs “makes for great copy” but stations were “using them now just as much as they were before.”

  • Attorney Robert B. Charles wrote a 1994 article on VNRs for The World and I magazine. He quoted David Barlett, then-president of the RTNDA, who said the following about the Clinton administration’s use of VNRs: “The danger is that the audience might think that an interview with President Clinton was generated in a way that it was not. Often, the station did not call the White House and secure a hard-hitting interview?.The White House doesn’t want you to know that they are spending taxpayers’ money peddling these phony interviews with the president. I mean, that harms his credibility.” But he quickly added, “that applies to [VNRs by] any politician, since members of Congress do it routinely.”


The media believe they have been vindicated by the revelation that a Republican congressional staffer really did write a controversial Republican memo on the political ramifications of the Terri Schiavo case. The memo called it a “great political issue” for Republicans because it energized the conservative pro-life base.

We referred to this memo as “dubious” in our last AIM Report and questioned why ABC News, the Washington Post, CBS News and other media had run stories about it without telling readers and viewers how they had verified the document as legitimate. It was unsigned and had no letterhead. There was every reason to be suspicious of the memo because its origin and authorship were in doubt. Reporters refused to authenticate it, leading us to conclude the memo must be bogus. A Washington Times survey found that no Republican Senator had even seen it.

Memo Author Revealed

However, after weeks of suspense, Brian Darling of the office of Republican Senator Mel Martinez admitted writing it and has resigned. But the real story is that liberal Democratic Senator Tom Harkin was confirmed as the source of the document for the media. How did Harkin get the memo? It was a mistake. Martinez was not aware that he had turned the document over to Harkin, as they prepared to work together to save Terri Schiavo’s life, nor was he aware of what was in the document. Harkin finally informed Martinez on April 6 that he had in fact received the memo from Martinez himself inadvertently. That’s when Martinez launched his own inquiry and discovered that Darling had written it.

The evidence is now clear that it was Harkin and/or his aides who distributed the memo on a massive scale to other Democrats and the press, in order to make Republicans look bad.

Bias at the Post?

The Washington Post’s Mike Allen took the bait, falsely reporting that “Republican officials” were the authors, that the memo had been “distributed to Republican senators” and by Republican “party leaders.” Allen also reported that the memo had been distributed “only to Republican Senators.” None of this was or is true.

The continuing controversy serves as a window into the political reporting of the Post and its use of anonymous sources. The reference to the memo being distributed “only to Republican Senators” was an obvious ruse designed to conceal the Democratic source.

The fact that the document was written by a Republican staffer is almost beside the point. The memo was never an official Republican document and there’s no evidence that any Republican Senator ever read it.

Ironically, it turns out that the Democrats and their media allies exploited a Republican memo for partisan political purposes.

In the Dan Rather Memogate case, his defense was that the memo was fake but the story was real. That was ridiculous. In this version of Memogate, however, it looks like the memo was real but the stories were mostly fake or inaccurate. Both cases demonstrate the liberal partisan bias of the media.

What You Can Do

Please send the enclosed cards or cards and letters of your own choosing to Berry Newman of the State Department and Jim Towey of the White House. Also, please help AIM with a contribution and vote of confidence.

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