The Bush administration, rejecting an opinion from the Government Accountability
Office, said last week that it is legal for federal agencies to feed TV stations
prepackaged news stories that do not disclose the government's role in producing
That message, in memos sent Friday to federal agency heads and general counsels,
contradicts a Feb. 17 memo from Comptroller General David M. Walker. Walker
wrote that such stories -- designed to resemble independently reported broadcast
news stories so that TV stations can run them without editing -- violate provisions
in annual appropriations laws that ban covert propaganda.
But Joshua B. Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and
Steven G. Bradbury, principal deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice
Department, said in memos last week that the administration disagrees with the
GAO's ruling. And, in any case, they wrote, the department's Office of Legal
Counsel, not the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, provides binding legal
interpretations for federal agencies to follow.
The legal counsel's office "does not agree with GAO that the covert propaganda
prohibition applies simply because an agency's role in producing and disseminating
information is undisclosed or 'covert,' regardless of whether the content of
the message is 'propaganda,' " Bradbury wrote. "Our view is that the
prohibition does not apply where there is no advocacy of a particular viewpoint,
and therefore it does not apply to the legitimate provision of information concerning
the programs administered by an agency."
The existence of the memos was reported Sunday by the New York Times.
Supporters say prepackaged news stories are a common public relations tool
with roots in previous administrations, that their exterior packaging typically
identifies the government as the source, and that it is up to news organizations,
not the government, to reveal to viewers where the material they broadcast came
Critics have derided such video news releases as taxpayer-financed attempts
by the administration to promote its policies in the guise of independent news
Within the last year, the GAO has rapped the Department of Health and Human
Services and the Office of National Drug Control Policy for distributing such
stories about the Medicare drug benefit and the administration's anti-drug campaign,
In an interview yesterday, Walker said the administration's approach is both
contrary to appropriations law and unethical.
"This is more than a legal issue. It's also an ethical issue and involves
important good government principles, namely the need for openness in connection
with government activities and expenditures," Walker said. "We should
not just be seeking to do what's arguably legal. We should be doing what's right."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday that federal agencies
have used video news releases for years. "As long as they are providing
factual information, it's okay," he said.
Walker said that even by that standard, some prepackaged news stories are out
"Congress has got to settle it -- either Congress or the courts,"
Walker said. "Congress may need to provide additional guidance with regard
to their intent in this overall area."
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said through a spokesman yesterday that he will
try to attach language to an appropriations bill to clarify that taxpayer money
cannot be spent on such productions. He and fellow Democratic Sen. Edward M.
Kennedy (Mass.) wrote to President Bush yesterday asking him to pull back the
new memos from Justice and the OMB.
They noted that following revelations this year that the Education Department
had paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote the No Child
Left Behind law, Bush had directed agencies to abandon such clandestine public
"Whether in the form of a payment to an actual journalist, or through
the creation of a fake one, it is wrong to deceive the public with the creation
of phony news stories," the lawmakers wrote.
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