Published on Tuesday, March 15, 2005 by Cox News Service
White House to Agencies: Ignore GAO's Ruling On 'illegal' TV News Releases
by Ken Herman
WASHINGTON -- The White House, intent on continuing to crank out "video news releases" that look like television news stories, has told government agency heads to ignore a Government Accountability Office memo criticizing the practice as illegal propaganda.
In a memo on Friday, Joshua Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said the lawyers the White House depends on disagree with the GAO's conclusions.
Accompanying Bolten's memo was a letter from Steven Bradbury, principal deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, who said video news releases "are the television equivalent of the printed press release."
"They can be a cost-effective means to distribute information through local news outlets, and their use by private and public entities has been widespread since the early 1990s, including by numerous federal agencies," Bradbury said.
Comptroller General David Walker of the GAO said Monday that his agency is "disappointed by the administration's actions" in telling agency heads to ignore the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.
"This is not just a legal issue, it's also an ethical matter," Walker said. "The taxpayers have a right to know when the government is trying to influence them with their own money."
Bradbury's memo said video news releases are legal and legitimate as long as they don't "constitute advocacy for any particular position or view."
The GAO, in a Feb. 17 memo to agency heads, said its review of video news releases distributed to television stations by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of National Drug Control Policy showed violations of federal law barring the use of government money for propaganda. The GAO said, "Television-viewing audiences did not know that stories they watched on television news programs about the government were, in fact, prepared by the government."
Giving no indication that the administration would change its policy, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, "It's very clear to the TV stations where they are coming from."
But the GAO, in the Feb. 17 memo from Walker, said that's not enough.
"They are intended to be indistinguishable from news segments broadcast to the public by independent television news organizations," Walker wrote. "To help accomplish this goal, these stories include actors or others hired to portray 'reporters' and may be accompanied by suggested scripts that television news anchors can use to introduce the story during the broadcast."
Former White House press secretary Mike McCurry, who held the job in the Clinton administration, said there was a "considerable amount of video news release activity" during those years, but much of it was limited to raw footage."
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