WASHINGTON: A 6,000-word cover article in the March 13 New York Times criticizing the Bush administration's use of VNRs has touched off a far-reaching debate between Congress, the media, and the White House on the ethics of "pre-packaged news."
The article characterized government VNRs as covert - but widely accepted - propaganda videos passed on to the public by cash-strapped media outlets starved for content. The resulting debate in Washington has largely focused on whether the government or the media is responsible for informing audiences of a VNR's source.
Focusing on the media's responsibility, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) has requested an FCC investigation, asking whether broadcasters should be obligated to disclose the source of materials they broadcast.
But the idea that government bears responsibility has congressional precedent. Twice in the past year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, has ruled that VNRs must identify themselves to audiences as government productions.
The Bush administration, however, is now advising federal agencies to disregard those rulings.
President Bush told reporters on March 16 that federal employees may disregard the GAO's opinion "so long as [the VNRs are] based upon facts, not advocacy."
The President's comments echoed two memos sent to federal agency heads on March 11 by Joshua Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Steven Bradbury, principal deputy assistant attorney general.
"Our view is that the prohibition does not apply where there is no advocacy of a particular viewpoint," Bradbury wrote.
The GAO, whose rulings carry no legal consequence, took issue with the Bush administration's stance.
"We disagree and are disappointed by the administration's actions," said GAO comptroller general David Walker via e-mail. "This is not just a legal issue; it's also an ethical matter. The taxpayers have a right to know when the government is trying to influence them with their own money."
Despite the back-and-forth in Washington, industry experts remain unconcerned.
"[It] was clearly a political story aimed squarely at the Bush administration," said Larry Moskowitz, chairman, president, and CEO of Medialink, referring to the Times article. He added that he is confident the controversy will subside.
"This has nothing to do with VNRs; this has to do with government," he said.
Larry Thomas, president of MultiVu, said he doesn't see any negative impact on the industry. "I don't think it hurts whatsoever to shed light on the process," he said. "The more people that understand what VNRs are, how they work ... quite frankly, it's better for the industry."