Video: White House makes 'news'

By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/14/2005 7:34:38 PM ET 2005-03-15T00:34:38

Available on the Internet to TV stations across the country: Upbeat reports on Iraq.

“A ladder made the collection and transportation of drinking water awkward and difficult,” narrates one reporter. “That changed with the liberation of Iraq.”

Also available — positive interviews:

“I vote. I vote a half hour ago. I'm happy as hell,” celebrates an Iraqi on camera after elections in his country.

And this:

“Iraqis are buying political and religious books once banned under the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein,” voices another reporter.

And there's this report shot in Michigan's Arab-American community.

As citizens chant, “Thank you. Thank you, U.S.A.!” a narrator says, “They seem to revel in the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime as much as they did in Baghdad.”

On issues from Medicare to farm prices, hundreds of local stations are running stories extolling Bush administration policies, reaching tens of millions of people.

But all these reports were written and distributed by the administration and its public relations firms — not by journalists.

Last month, the Government Accountability Office warned that prepackaging news “for purposes of publicity or propaganda” has been banned since 1951, unless the reports are clearly labeled.

Often the videos are shown as is. But sometimes the reporters even re-record the government's scripts to make them sound more local.

“The administration and the White House ought to stop propaganda,” says Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. “That's what this is, propaganda. And it is appalling.”

But just last Friday the Justice Department ruled that video news releases are legal.

“The informational news releases that you're referring to are something that have been in use for many years. It goes back to the early ’90s,” says White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

In fact, the Clinton White House started the practice, but the Bush administration has spent a quarter of a billion dollars on public relations, mostly for videos — double what Bill Clinton spent. No matter who does it, television news leaders say it's not ethical.

“All material that comes from an outside source if it is used must be clearly labeled as to the origin of that material,” says Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio Television News Directors Association.

NBC News discourages using video provided by non-news organizations. If used, under limited circumstances, it must be approved by an executive and disclosed to viewers.

Still, for millions of viewers, the government has found the best way to spin the news is to produce the stories itself.

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