Faking the news


Published: Tuesday, March 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 28, 2005 at 9:19 p.m.
You wouldn't think the Comptroller General of the United States would have to warn federal agencies that it isn't nice - indeed, it isn't even legal - to fool the American people by concocting fake news.
But you would be wrong. Comptroller General David M. Walker has taken the extraordinary step of telling federal agency heads that it is illegal to spend tax dollars on public relations promotions that are disguised as legitimate news reports.
Said Walker, "agencies may not use appropriated funds to produce or distribute pre-packaged news stories intended to be viewed by television audiences that conceal or do not clearly identify for the television audiences that conceal or do not clearly identify for the television viewing audience that the agency was the source of those materials.
Translation: It's not nice to fool the American people with phony news.
The issue came up because the Bush administration paid public relations firms to create videos about Medicaid and an anti-drug campaign. The videos were moderated by actors who claimed to be news broadcasters reporting from Washington.
Subsequently, several television stations picked up the videos and aired them without knowing that the federal government, not a news organization, was the source of the material.
There is a word for government-produced materials intended to promote government programs with slick advertising campaigns. It's called propaganda.
News is something else entirely - and unlike government-commissioned propaganda - taxpayers don't have to pick up the tab for legitimate news reporting.
"Prepackaged news stories can be utilized without violating the law, so long as there is clear disclosure to the television viewing audience that this material was prepared by or in cooperation with the government department of agency," Walker wrote.
All Walker is really telling federal agencies is that if they want to produce propaganda, they have to disclose that it is, in fact, propaganda. They can't disguise propaganda as news reporting. That is a violation of the public trust.
Oh yes, and it's against the law.

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