General Accounting Office found HHS VNRs to have violated federal law

WASHINGTON: VNRs created by Home Front Communications and Ketchum for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to promote a new Medicare law violated federal law by failing to identify themselves as government productions, the General Accounting Office (GAO) ruled last week.

WASHINGTON: VNRs created by Home Front Communications and Ketchum for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to promote a new Medicare law violated federal law by failing to identify themselves as government productions, the General Accounting Office (GAO) ruled last week.

The ruling states that the VNRs qualified as "covert propaganda" for the Bush Administration because the final phrase - "This is Karen Ryan reporting" - would lead viewers to believe it was a news report, not a government video. It is illegal to use taxpayer dollars for publicity or propagandistic purposes.

The 16-page ruling also included a lengthy examination of the use of VNRs in general. HHS had argued that such tapes are not propaganda because news editors are aware of their origins and are free to use whatever portions of the videos that they see fit.

The GAO rejected that argument, saying that the ultimate target audience for these VNRs was the general public, which was likely to be misled by the term "reporting."

"[T]he content of the news reports was attributed to individuals purporting to be reporters, but actually hired by an HHS subcontractor," the ruling stated.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) is currently preparing a bill that would force the Bush Campaign to reimburse taxpayers the $44,000 it took to create the videos. The GAO, as an advisory body to Congress, and its rulings carry no legal force of their own.

Neither Ketchum nor HHS returned calls as of press time. Home Front referred all calls to HHS public affairs.

It is unclear whether the ruling will have any impact on Ketchum's contract with HHS.

The ruling could affect future VNR use in government campaigns. Although the Radio and Television News Directors Association and the PRSA have long had guidelines saying VNR scripts must identify their sources, the ruling marks the first time the government has commented on their use.

"We have always subscribed to attribution and full disclosure in the script," said Larry Moskowitz, CEO of Medialink and a VNR pioneer. "The GAO ruling says that if you produce a video that is fully disclosed and appropriately attributed, you are within the proper use of federal money and, therefore, not in violation."

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