Accuracy in Media

While the media created a “scandal” over the Bush administration’s use of video news releases (VNR), they continue to decline to report any details about the Clinton administration’s production and use of VNRs. Clinton, like Bush, produced VNRs on a Medicare drug benefit. The VNR contained prepackaged news segments which were very similar in that they were not labeled as having been produced by the government (although the VNR itself was labeled in both cases), and they featured a “reporter” who was paid by the government to read a prepared script.

If the media is truly so outraged about these VNRs, why were they not outraged during the Clinton adminstration? Worse, why are they continuing to engage in hypocrisy by failing to report the details? Back in 1996, journalism and public relations expert Glen T. Cameron wrote a landmark study of a Clinton VNR. It was billed as an informative first look at the way broadcast television news stations use VNRs. Since that study occurred almost 10 years ago, you’d think media would’ve caught up by now, and reported on some Clinton VNRs.

The study was titled “VNRs and Air Checks: A Content Analysis of the Use of Video News Releases in Television Newscasts.” Cameron chose for analysis a VNR from the America Responds to AIDS (ARTA) campaign, which the CDC sent to local news stations. The VNR included the prepackaged news story, extra sound bites, extra “B-Roll” (video footage), and clips of public service announcements. Cameron reported that the CDC specifically targeted health beat reporters in major markets when promoting the VNR and satellite media tours (SMTs). One fourth of the news stories that resulted were reported by health-beat reporters.

Of 47 news stories that Cameron analyzed, local news stations used slightly less than half of the prepackaged news story and script the government provided. Only 7 stories displayed characters identifying the source of the footage used. Only 8% mentioned the CDC. Cameron also found that few stories (4%) sought outside information to elaborate or balance the story.

Starting in 2004, and continuing until today, media have taken the Bush administration to the woodshed over government VNRs that wind up being broadcast in whole or in part. The news audience is left with the idea this is something new. Media did not see fit to report that the Clinton administration was spending taxpayer money for electronically tracking some of their VNRs in order to find out how many news stations broadcast them in some form. For example, government reports indicate that in February and May of 1999, a VNR about listeriosis and safe food practices for at-risk groups was produced and distributed via the USDA Television Service. After tracking the VNR, the Clinton administration learned that 11 television markets had downlinked the VNR, reaching an estimated 617,000 viewers.

In the final ironic twist, consider how the media produced story after story on Jeff Gannon’s “softball questions” which were published on a an alleged “sham” news organization site that had ties to a Republican-oriented organization. But no media told us that the Clinton administration produced “phony” presidential interviews that wound up on broadcast news. In 1996, Dave Bartlett, then-President of the Radio/Television News Directors Association (RTNDA),  was asked by attorney-writer Robert B. Charles to say what he thought was wrong with VNRs. Here’s his blockbuster answer: “Fake President Clinton trying to peddle whatever he’s trying to peddle this week: The danger is that the audience might think that an interview with President Clinton was generated in a way 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.” It seems that the media didn’t want you to know about it either.

Then consider this statement by Bartlett, “That applies to [VNRs by] any politician, since members of Congress do it routinely.” Routine, eh? Bet you didn’t get that idea from the recent coverage of the Bush VNR “scandal” or the Jeff Gannon brouhaha.Indeed, Charles reported that these phony Clinton interviews were done in a “tax-payer funded television station” in the “belly of the Rayburn Building in Washington.” Clinton used taxpayer funds to beam the phony interviews out by satellite to stations across the country. Yet, the media want you to believe this is a breaking news story and that they’re going to protect you from the “fake news” out there.

As President Clinton might say, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘fake’ is.”

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