The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, March 14, 2005

The Bush disinformation machine: not much arm-twisting required

In the war with the boastful bloggers, chalk one up to MSM: the New York Times makes some amends for its WMD follies by deploying some actual journalism on the growth industry that is the USG video news release (VNR).

When Karen Ryan's VNR performances for HHS came to light, much blogospherical bleating followed; some even blamed Karen Ryan.

Blissfully free of such onanistic frenzy is a 4,000 word piece today by David Barstow and Robin Stein (can't say I've heard of either) which provides some context and some examples: the essential 5W stuff.

For one thing, the answer to the cui bono? question is: everybody concerned (viewers naturally excepted!):
Local affiliates are spared the expense of digging up original material. Public relations firms secure government contracts worth millions of dollars. The major networks, which help distribute the releases, collect fees from the government agencies that produce segments and the affiliates that show them. The administration, meanwhile, gets out an unfiltered message, delivered in the guise of traditional reporting.

And USG is fighting the GAO rulings against the use of the Karen Ryan-style VNRs [1]:
...on Friday, the Justice Department and the Office of Management and Budget circulated a memorandum instructing all executive branch agencies to ignore the G.A.O. findings. The memorandum said the G.A.O. failed to distinguish between covert propaganda and "purely informational" news segments made by the government. Such informational segments are legal, the memorandum said, whether or not an agency's role in producing them is disclosed to viewers.

We have examples of the way in which TV stations handled the material. For instance, a recent segment produced by the Agriculture Department, the agency's narrator ended the report by saying "In Princess Anne, Maryland, I'm Pat O'Leary reporting for the U.S. Department of Agriculture." Yet AgDay, a syndicated farm news program that is shown on some 160 stations, simply introduced the segment as being by "AgDay's Pat O'Leary." The final sentence was then trimmed to "In Princess Anne, Maryland, I'm Pat O'Leary reporting."

News 10 Now, a cable station in Syracuse owned by Time Warner
went even further with one of Karen Ryan's segments (see below): it
edited out the original narration and had one of its reporters repeat the script almost word for word.

Now, no doubt the USDA [2] is aware that its material will be falsified in this way; but the producers are primarily responsible. And others like the station news producers and anchors are higher up in the chain of responsibility than the USDA. (Unless all those TV people are minors - that would be totally different...)

Karen Ryan is interviewed for the piece [3]; apparently, she
cringes at the phrase "covert propaganda." These are words for dictators and spies, and yet they have attached themselves to her like a pair of handcuffs.

(A tad over-colourful, but the guys deserve slack.)

And says she got less than $5,000 for her HHS work.

The piece also raises the regulatory role of the FCC and points to - but doesn't reference, damn it! - a 2000 decision. This, I find is NORML Foundation (December 22 2000) [4]. I doubt whether the decision covers the case of USG VNRs.

The piece also points to one structural factor favouring the use of VNRs:
WCIA is a small station with a big job in central Illinois.

Each weekday, WCIA's news department produces a three-hour morning program, a noon broadcast and three evening programs. There are plans to add a 9 p.m. broadcast. The staff, though, has been cut to 37 from 39. "We are doing more with the same," said Jim P. Gee, the news director.

That'll do it...

  1. Can I find this DOJ/OMB memorandum on either site? Can I buggery! And, of course, there's no link in the piece. Bastards.

    The legal implications are of interest: the legal force of GAO rulings, the effect of the Chevron doctrine, and so forth: but no point in second-guessing what the memorandum might say. (Presumably, it will be published at some stage.)

  2. It's acronymed USDA, not DOA. Wonder why?

  3. I'm pretty sure she is: use of the present tense - cringes and
    as she self-mockingly puts it
    - implies as much. Reference is made to earlier interviews, and quotes are refered to in the past tense - as
    "I'm like the Marlboro man," she said in a recent interview.
    I just don't feel I did anything wrong," she said.
    Ostensibly, one is dealing with plain text to be read; in fact, it is hieratical code which must be translated, or at least parsed.

  4. NORML complained that the broadcast networks had
    entered into agreements with the Office of National Drug Control Policy ("ONDCP''), whereby the Networks received compensation from the ONDCP in return for airing programming that contained anti-drug or anti-alcohol themes.
    and failed to disclose them to viewers as required by 47 USC 317. The FCC decided that, while there may have been an infraction for repeat broadcasts of relevant programmes, it would take no action.

    My reading of ยง317 (from a cursory consideration) is that it is even less appropriate to the provision by USG of VNRs than it was to the NORML case.

    There is a Wayback cache of a NORML links page (some links actually seem to work!).

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