WASHINGTON: Congress is halfway to passing a bill that will prohibit the government from spending money for one year on VNRs that do not include video or audio disclaimers that identify them as government products.
Introduced by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), the amendment to an $82 billion war-spending bill indicates that prepackaged news stories should include "clear notification within the text or audio of the prepackaged news story that [it] was prepared or funded by that executive branch agency."
The House voted to approve the spending bill, which covers the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, last Thursday. The Senate is likely to approve the bill early this week and send it to President Bush.
Not satisfied with a temporary change, however, the Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing this Thursday on additional legislation, introduced by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), that would permanently require such disclosure.
The bill seeks to amend the Communications Act of 1934 to mandate that government agencies label prepackaged news stories with disclosure announcements visible for the duration of the story.
"Our government should not be in the business of fooling the public with fake news stories," said Lautenberg in a statement.
"Congress has the right to control how money is spent," said Doug Simon, president and CEO of DS Simon Productions, adding that the temporary amendment was preferable to the permanent ban because it is tied to specific spending.
"Compared to making it a blanket law, having it in specific expenditures makes more sense," he said.
But Larry Moskowitz, CEO of Medialink, said he believes the Kerry/Lautenberg bill will not pass as is because it does not include industry-specific language.
"It does not appear in this form to be realistic," he said. "I think this is a law written by people not in the broadcasting or PR business."
Of particular concern, he said, is the possible impact on journalists. "I think it's rather dangerous for government to begin, in a hurried and emotional atmosphere, to discuss and pass legislation that could limit free speech," said Moskowitz.
Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, said she shares the goal of the Kerry-Lautenberg legislation, but believes it has some faults.
"It does represent government regulation of news content, which is something that is unprecedented and unconstitutional," she said. "We think it's unnecessary because the industry practice and accepted standard is to clearly identify material from outside sources."