- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 26, 2005

A key Senate panel is moving closer to endorsing tougher restrictions for federal agencies that produce video news releases, the prepackaged reports that resemble TV news stories but are really designed to promote the government’s agenda.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is scheduled to meet Sept. 8 to put the bill in its final form before sending it to the floor of the full chamber for a vote.

Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican and the panel’s chairman, has told the bill’s sponsors that the committee will hold the “markup” session soon after the Senate returns from its August recess.

Government agencies and corporations produce and distribute video releases, called VNRs, to promote programs and products.

TV stations sometimes air the reports unedited.

In other instances, TV reporters incorporate video footage, or “B-roll,” from outside sources into their reports. The live coverage of the Space Shuttle Discovery launch that aired yesterday, for example, included NASA-supplied video from a camera mounted on the vessel’s fuel tank, providing an unprecedented view of its ascent into the heavens.

It isn’t always clear when viewers are seeing actual news stories or a VNR, raising all sorts of ethical dilemmas for journalists and public officials.

At least 40 TV stations aired VNRs from the Department of Health and Human Services that pushed the new Medicare drug benefit last year. The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, later determined the reports were unlabeled propaganda.

The Federal Communications Commission requires broadcasters to label VNRs only if the station has been paid to air it or if it deals with political or other contentious matters.

The bill before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee would require the agencies to label VNRs as government productions by making a disclaimer that reads “Produced by the U.S. government” visible throughout the story.

Two of the panel’s Democrats — Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and John Kerry of Massachusetts — introduced the measure, which is opposed by the public relations industry and the Radio-Television News Directors Association, a group that represents top newsroom managers.

Supporters of tougher VNR restrictions include the Center for Media and Democracy, a public relations watchdog group, and the Free Press, a nonpartisan organization that opposes corporate consolidation in the media.

WETA falls

WETA-FM (90.9) dropped classical music from its weekday lineup Feb. 28 and replaced it with two of National Public Radio’s brightest new shows, “News & Notes” and “Day to Day” with a healthy dose of BBC News.

Too bad listeners haven’t warmed up to it.

WETA captured 1.9 percent of listeners 12 and older in the spring, down from a 2.6 percent audience share one year earlier, according to data Arbitron Inc. released Monday.

WGMS-FM (103.5), the commercial classical station, drew a 5.6 percent share, up from a 4.7 percent share during spring 2004.

Rival NPR station WAMU-FM (88.5) drew a 4.2 percent share during both the spring 2004 and spring 2005 books.

• Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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