WASHINGTON — After similar requests made by two Senate Democrats in the past week, two public interest groups asked the Federal Communications Commission on Monday to investigate broadcasters’ roles in the Bush administration’s use of video news releases, adding pressure on the agency to get involved in the growing controversy.
However, whether the FCC has any authority in the matter is unclear.
In a complaint filed with the commission, Free Press, a media reform group, and the Center for Media and Democracy, which monitors distortions in the public relations industry, prevailed on newly appointed chairman Kevin J. Martin to look into recent press reports that hundreds of local television news programs had broadcast government-sponsored VNRs without disclosing them as such.
As many as 20 federal agencies have used taxpayer dollars to produce TV news segments promoting administration policies. The majority have aired as if reported by independent news organizations. The controversy first came to light when it was revealed that conservative commentator Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 by the Dept. of Education to tout the president’s education agenda in his syndicated column.
“Both the Bush administration and local broadcasters must be held accountable for this betrayal of the public trust,” Josh Silver, exec director of Free Press, said in a statement. “The FCC needs to take quick action to investigate and eradicate news fraud and enforce the existing laws against payola. Congress must enact new laws that will stop government-funded fake news from airing without a disclaimer.”
‘Basic ethical standards’
In an accompanying statement, Center for Media and Democracy exec director John Stauber said, “Not labeling fake news produced by the government or corporations constitutes news fraud, plagiarism and violates the most basic ethical standards of journalism.”
Last week, in separate requests, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) sent letters to the FCC asking for the commission to investigate whether the administration’s use of VNRs violated any federal laws or regulations.
“Until now, attention has largely focused on whether certain VNRs created by the federal government violated the restriction on using appropriated funds for publicity or propaganda,” wrote Inouye, ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over the FCC. “However, equally as serious is growing evidence that certain broadcasters are editing government-created VNRs to make it appear as if such information is the result of independent news-gathering.”
Inouye continued: “Not only does this lack of disclosure represent a serious breach of journalistic ethics, but it also seems to violate FCC rules requiring attribution for the airing of ‘any political broadcast matter’ or ‘the discussion of a controversial issue of public importance.’ Moreover, additional scrutiny may be necessary to determine whether these practices also violate the Communications Act’s prohibition against a station’s acceptance of ‘money, service or other valuable consideration’ for the airing of content.”
The FCC has opened an investigation into the Williams case, since his receipt of payments raised the possibility of payola violations. But administration VNRs have generally involved the airing of a report by an unknown personality without disclosure of the government’s sponsorship; no evidence of payments such as those to Williams has surfaced. Thus, the commission might not have authority to investigate.
The agency is evaluating whether it does. An FCC spokesman said, “We take all inquiries from the Hill seriously and will be responding to the senators in due course.”