The flurry of news stories about the Bush administration producing “propaganda” and feeding it to clueless news stations who errantly broadcast the material, evoked no shortage of outrage from TV news directors. The stories were generated after a GAO report found a handful of Bush administration video news releases contained segments which were not clearly marked as having been produced by the government.
Despite the fact that the GAO found the VNRs as a whole were clearly marked as having been produced by the government and that any news agency would’ve known so, news directors seemed eager to point their flame-throwers at the direction of the Bush administration, even as they held on to their ever-shrinking fig leaves of righteousness.
Seattle KCPQ/Fox 13 news director Bill Kaczaraba told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “It’s very different than [presenting facts.] Its purpose is to forward an agenda, and I think it’s a very dangerous trend.” Kathy Lehmann Francis who until recently was the news director at WDRB, the Fox affiliate in Louisville, Ky, told the New York Times: “They’re inherently one-sided, and they don’t offer the possibility for follow-up questions-or any questions at all.” (The Times then discovered the station had aired at least seven VNRs recently, with no disclosure of their origin.) Mike Stutz, news director at KGTV ABC affiliate in San Diego said “It amounts to propaganda, doesn’t it?” Between 2001-2004 his station ran at least 25 VNRs, according to the Times.
Back in March 2004 when the VNR “scandal” first hit, Bud Veazey, assistant news director at WAGA-Atlanta, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “You’d never see anything like that in Atlanta.” That was before Zachary Roth of the Columbia Journalism Review’s Campaign Desk discovered that Veazey’s station had run VNRs as well. How did Veazey react? Like Adam in the garden looking for a snake, Veazy explained, “You’re looking to fill four hours ?oh, here’s a nice package.” Then he focused on the Bush administration: “Shame on them?that’s pretty sneaky.”
Julie Akins of KSEE/NBC Fresno said “It’s clear that there was an attempt to deceive?It’s shocking that the Bush administration would manipulate the news media in this way.” Most of the news directors they spoke to were “genuinely angry” at the Bush administration for what they “saw as a deceptive public relations campaign that took conscious advantage of the smaller stations’ well-known lack of resources.”
However, as AIM has previously reported, VNRs have been used by TV news directors for decades, and their affinity for denial of usage is equally well-known. However, 15 years ago a Nielsen media survey of news directors found 78% admitted using VNRs at least once a week. In addition, a 1995 study by Dr. E.E. Chang of the World College of Journalism and Communication found that more than two-thirds of news directors surveyed thought VNRs should be labeled, but about one-third “rarely or never identified the VNRs they used.” Audience surveys found news consumers believed the responsibility for labeling rested with the news directors.
AIM spoke about the situation to David Bartlett, former president of the Radio and Television Directors Association (RTNDA) and currently a partner with Rowan & Blewitt in Washington, D.C. As far as AIM’s view that VNRs per se are not in any way scandalous, Bartlett replied, “That’s a very good insight.” Bartlett said recent media coverage had been mixing two distinct issues “unnaturally and unnecessarily.” Those two issues were whether the government should produce VNRs and whether VNRs are “scandalous” in and of themselves.
Bartlett addressed the general issue of TV news directors blaming the Bush administration for the VNRs that wound up broadcast in whole on TV (the equivalent of a newspaper publishing a press release word-for-word, which has happened before):”To throw this back on politicians, these news directors are wallowing in hypocrisy, disingenuousness.” He added, “I used to say with a wink, a lot fewer VNRs air than VNR producers would have you think, and a lot more are used by TV news directors than they are admitting to.” Now, with modern tracking techniques the VNR industry has licked the first problem, Bartlett points out, since they can track where and when VNRs air on broadcast news shows. “This has created enormous embarrassment for the other side of the equation,” he says.
Bartlett said he was “amused” at the “long take/big story” of the New York Times on the issue, which included quotes from news directors. “They just caught them red-handed, and they were all running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Now they’re trying to clean up their procedures,” he quipped.
Bartlett also weighed in on news standards for screening VNRs which were put forth on the RTNDA website in April. He said, “My own view, is while this is interesting, and not harmful, it’s pointless because the current and former RTNDA code of ethics then and now is sufficient: namely don’t lie to your audience. How much more basic can it be?” He added, “If you use video you didn’t produce, simply say so ?to start writing a Napoleonic code for when a video can’t and can be used is unnecessary and impossible. You can’t cover every eventuality. The simplest form of journalistic hygiene is full disclosure, then let your audience decide what they think of it.”
The idea that such VNRs are new or unique to the Bush administration is wrong, says Bartlett. “That’s totally incorrect as anyone who even has a passing understanding of the situation would know. It’s absurd. Government’s been doing this for ages. The predecessor technology goes back to the mid-50’s at least, when the Pentagon had an office producing positive films on the military. TV stations were certainly using the footage, probably some without noting where it came from.”
When questioned about a previous quote made about the Clinton administration use of VNRs, Bartlett indicated Clinton used them on the campaign trail and in office. The quote appeared in an article on VNRs by attorney Robert B. Charles. Bartlett was asked what was wrong with political VNRs: “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 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,” explained Bartlett. “I mean, that harms his credibility.” But, he adds, “that applies to [VNRs by] any politician, since members of Congress do it routinely.”
Bartlett doesn’t fault government for using “every tool in the PR box,” although he agrees with the GAO decision. The key issue is disclosure: “So what if they produce VNRs, as long as there’s disclosure. I have no problem with that at all. If some news director runs a piece with a phony reporter, that ain’t the PR person’s fault, that ain’t the government’s problem, that’s the news department’s problem,” Bartlett quipped, “That’s where we stand.” To argue whether government should even be using PR is a “battle not even worth fighting.” Indeed, the practice in the United States goes back to World War I and George Creel’s propaganda house.
When Bartlett hears of deliberate or accidental airing without disclosure, he’s “part amused, part annoyed.” “When news media come back and say they’re shocked, I say, ‘No you’re not.'”
Ironically, ten years ago, Dr. E.E. Chang’s aforementioned study found public relations professionals “believed news people often use VNRs and, for reasons of journalistic ego, refuse to admit it.” In 1996, a Nielsen survey found 100% of newsrooms surveyed used VNRs.” And yet, the reaction of news directors to recent reports of Bush VNRs contributed to the sense of a ‘scandal.’
Scott Libin of the Poynter Institute commented, “We in journalism like to talk about these things as if it is sweeping the nation and it’s not like that?if disclosed fully, then I don’t think it’s irresponsible to use (VNR footage) in the fuller context of a reported story.”