The Bush administration’s promotion of the new Medicare law through videos made to look like news reports violated a prohibition against using public money for propaganda, Congress’ General Accounting Office said Wednesday.
The materials in English and Spanish were produced by the Health and Human Services Department but did not identify their source. The videos, or parts of them, aired on at least 40 television stations in March, the department said.
The GAO report was issued just as the administration was trying to blunt criticism of the new law by trumpeting discounts for people who use Medicare-approved drug cards when filling their prescriptions.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry said the GAO decision “is another example of how this White House has misrepresented its Medicare plan.” The Congressional Research Service said earlier this month that administration efforts to keep estimates of the Medicare bill’s cost from Democratic lawmakers last year probably violated federal law.
While there were several components to the video news releases, GAO faulted the administration for distributing seemingly independent, ready-to-air reports that did not inform viewers that they came from the government.
The story packages violated the law because the government “did not identify itself as the source of the news report,” said GAO, Congress’ investigative arm.
The English version ends with a woman’s voice saying, “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.” A man identifies himself as a reporter named Alberto Garcia in the Spanish-language version.
“The viewing audience does not know ... that Karen Ryan and Alberto Garcia were paid with HHS funds for their work,” congressional investigators said.
Democrats seek repayment
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who sought the GAO inquiry, said President Bush’s re-election campaign should repay the government for the cost of the videos. Lautenberg said he will introduce legislation to force the reimbursement.
“These funds were meant to help our seniors, not the president’s re-election campaign,” he said. HHS has said it spent about $43,000 to produce the materials.
A campaign spokesman referred calls to the White House, where a spokesman declined to comment.
Bill Pierce, a Health and Human Services spokesman, defended the videos Wednesday and said nothing in the GAO report precludes the department from distributing them in the future. Pierce blamed TV stations that “chose not to identify the source of the material.”
Still, Kevin Keane, Pierce’s boss, has said that the videos should have identified who made them. When officials, including HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, addressed the issue with reporters in March, they played similar videos made by the Clinton administration in an effort to show how common video news releases are.
The principal difference, however, was a clear disclaimer in the Clinton administration product identifying HHS as the producer.
The promotional materials were produced under a contract with Ketchum Inc., a Washington-based public relations firm. Ketchum hired a company named Home Front Communications, which specializes in video news releases, the GAO report said.
CNN service was distributor
They were distributed by CNN Newsource, a service that distributes video news releases as well as actual news reports. GAO said some news executives misread the label or mistook the story package for an independent news report.
CNN Newsource is an affiliate service of Cable News Network and distributed to hundreds of affiliates, including television stations and cable news channels, throughout the United States. Newsource provides content needed to create competitive newscasts.
Congressional investigators previously examined a television ad about changes in Medicare that the administration aired in the winter. They found that the ad was legal but contained “notable omissions and errors.”
Critics contended that the ad was a thinly disguised Bush campaign commercial. National Media Inc., a media firm also working for Bush’s campaign, had a share of the publicly funded $12.6 million contract.
National Media has since withdrawn from the Medicare ad contract. A second ad, touting the new discount drug card, is now running.