Accuracy in Media

The recent media uproar over the Bush administration’s use of video news releases followed on the heels of a spate of stories that came out last year when critical coverage first began. The VNR controversy did not go unnoticed by CBS, which was in a unique position to fall into hypocrisy over the issue.

On March 15, 2004, Dan Rather and John Roberts reported on the story. “There are charges now the Bush administration is selling the program to the public in a very misleading way,” the report began. John Roberts told viewers of “an investigation of a bogus news story put out by the administration to promote the Medicare reform and prescription drug bill.”

Roberts said, “The so-called Video News Release or VNR-sent to TV stations across the country, uses actors to portray journalists and report on the benefits of the plan.”  Then Larry Noble, with the Center For Responsive Politics commented, “This is the government putting out propaganda and trying to make it look like a news report, look like valid independent news. And that’s a very disturbing role for the government to play.”

Roberts’ use of the term “the so-called Video New Release” seems to persuade the viewer to believe that not only is this something relatively new, but something new to CBS in particular.

What viewers didn’t hear was that years ago attorney and writer Robert B. Charles reported:

“Nor is CNN the only media giant that appears to be reluctant to admit using VNRs. ABC, NBC, and CBS each profess ‘rare’ or no recent use of VNRs, yet each network is touted as a client or recipient of VNRs by leading VNR producers.”

In 2002 the Guerilla News Network published a piece written by staffers from a group called PR Watch. They said that “For years CBS (and all the other networks) have run fake news stories in the form of video news releases.” What’s more, the article, “CBS sells fake news,” went on to announce that CBS also had gone into the business of creating, producing and distributing so-called “fake news.”

“Now CBS has taken this outrage to a new level,” the report stated, “by entering the profitable business of selling, producing and distributing VNRs.” The news came after PR Watch staffers spotted an ad CBS placed in PR Week.

AIM reviewed a copy of the ad, which sought clients who would hire CBS to “put one of the world’s leading media companies to work for you” producing VNRs. The ad ran under the heading “CBS Media group” and urged paying clients to “Be a part of our global network reach. Put one of the world’s leading media companies to work for you anytime, anywhere.” CBS offered “one-stop shopping” for “all your electronic public relations needs.” Included in the deal was VNR production and distribution, satellite and radio media tours, webcasting, live-event production, stock footage and “full graphics,” Nielsen-generated usage reports (a tracking report telling how many television stations broadcast part or all of the VNR,) and “Guaranteed placement on the CBS Newspath VNR feed.”

If a potential client wasn’t convinced already, the last line of the ad urged them to “Learn why more media professionals are turning to CBS.” The contact person was Karen Kapnick of CBS.

On March 14, 2005 Andrea Mitchell of NBC weighed in on the VNR controversy. The article was titled “GOP under fire for producing news ‘reports.’ Critics say it’s nothing but PR disguised as news.”

Like other mainstream media articles on the subject, Mitchell allowed that the Clinton administration had produced VNRs, but no details were forthcoming. The emphasis was clearly on alleged GOP wrongdoing. The article ended with this interesting statement: “NBC News discourages using video provided by non-news organizations. If used, under limited circumstances, it must be approved by an executive and disclosed to viewers. Still, for millions of viewers, the government has found the best way to spin the news is to produce the stories itself.” It was an ironic statement for Mitchell to make, given Robert Charles’reporting that NBC was among those listed as a client or recipient of VNRs by leading VNR producers. In addition, Mitchell omits any inconvenient reference to the Washington Post’s well-known reporting in 2003 on two NBC affiliates that had a policy of selling segments on their news shows. After AIM ran a story on this (http://www.aim.org/media_monitor/A2625_0_2_0_C/),  a retired television news professional contacted us to say the practice was very widespread.

The VNR controversy soon spread from President Bush to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Media followed the lead of Democratic politicians who were insisting that VNRs produced by the state’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency on teacher tenure and merit pay, employee meal breaks, and nurse staffing levels were an unethical use of taxpayer funds.

“I really am dismayed that you will take and use taxpayer dollars in such a frivolous way to project a position that does not reflect full disclosure to the public,” said state Sen. Mike Machado, D-Stockton. ABC News reported that the videos, “which look like news stories, were sent to California television stations. It is unknown if any stations aired the videos.” It’s not surprising the videos were sent to TV stations, because that’s what they are created for. A video news release is to visual news media what a print release is to print media. The uncertainties of the story didn’t prevent extensive media coverage.

Scott Libin of the Poynter Institute reported this on the Schwarzenegger controversy: “Despite claims by political opponents and opinion writers, I can find no evidence that the piece aired in its entirety on even a single station, although some did stories of their own about the workplace issue and about the controversy surrounding the VNR.”




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