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Context of 'May 2005: Congress Outlaws Government Propaganda Packaged as News'

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Roger Ailes, the senior media consultant for the Nixon administration (see 1968), writes, or helps write, a secret memo for President Nixon and fellow Republicans outlining a plan for conservatives to “infiltrate and neutralize” the mainstream American media. The document will not be released until 2011; experts will call it the “intellectual forerunner” to Fox News, which Ailes will launch as a “fair and balanced” news network in 1996 (see October 7, 1996). John Cook, the editor of the online news and commentary magazine Gawker, will call the document the outline of a “nakedly partisan… plot by Ailes and other Nixon aides to circumvent the ‘prejudices of network news’ and deliver ‘pro-administration’ stories to heartland television viewers.” The document is entitled “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News.” Ailes, currently the owner of REA Productions and Ailes Communications Inc., works for the Nixon White House as a media consultant; he will serve the same function for President George H.W. Bush during his term. Ailes is a forceful advocate for using television to shape the message of the Nixon administration and of Republican policies in general. He frequently suggests launching elaborately staged events to entice favorable coverage from television reporters, and uses his contacts at the news networks to head off negative publicity. Ailes writes that the Nixon White House should run a partisan, pro-Republican media operation—essentially a self-contained news production organization—out of the White House itself. He complains that the “liberal media” “censors” the news to portray Nixon and his administration in a negative light. Cook will say the plan “reads today like a detailed precis for a Fox News prototype.” The initial idea may have originated with Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, but if so, Ailes expands and details the plan far beyond Haldeman’s initial seed of an idea. [Roger Ailes, 1970; Gawker, 6/30/2011] In 2011, Rolling Stone journalist Tim Dickinson will write: “This is an astounding find. It underscores Ailes’s early preoccupation with providing the GOP with a way to do an end run around skeptical journalists.” [Rolling Stone, 7/1/2011]
Focus on Television - Ailes insists that any such media plan should focus on television and not print. Americans are “lazy,” he writes, and want their thinking done for them: “Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you.” Ailes says the Nixon administration should create its own news network “to provide pro-administration, videotape, hard news actualities to the major cities of the United States.” Other television news outlets such as NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, and PBS News, are “the enemy,” he writes, and suggests going around them by creating packaged, edited news stories and interviews directly to local television stations. (Years later, these kinds of “news reports” will be called “video news releases,” or VNRs, and will routinely be used by the George W. Bush administration and others—see March 15, 2004, May 19, 2004, March 2005, and March 13, 2005. They will be outlawed in 2005—see May 2005.) “This is a plan that places news of importance to localities (senators and representatives are newsmakers of importance to their localities) on local television news programs while it is still news. It avoids the censorship, the priorities, and the prejudices of network news selectors and disseminators.” Ailes and his colleagues include detailed cost analyses and production plans for such news releases. In a side note on the document, Ailes writes: “Basically a very good idea. It should be expanded to include other members of the administration such as cabinet involved in activity with regional or local interest. Also could involve GOP governors when in DC. Who would purchase equipment and run operation—White House? RNC [Republican National Committee]? Congressional caucus? Will get some flap about news management.”
Dirty Tricks - Ailes suggests planting “volunteers” within the Wallace campaign, referring to segregationist George Wallace (D-AL), whose third-party candidacy in 1968 almost cost Nixon the presidency. Ailes knows Wallace is planning a 1972 run as well, and is apparently suggesting a “mole” to either gather intelligence, carry out sabotage, or both. (Wallace’s plans for another run will be cut short by an assassination attempt—see May 15, 1972.) Ailes also suggests having his firm film interviews with Democrats who support Nixon’s Vietnam policies, such as Senators John Stennis (D-MS) and John McClellan (D-AR). Though Stennis and McClellan would believe that the interviews were for actual news shows, they would actually be carried out by Ailes operatives and financed by a Nixon campaign front group, the “Tell it to Hanoi Committee.” In June 1970, someone in the Nixon administration scuttles the plan, writing: “[T]he fact that this presentation is White House directed, unbeknownst to the Democrats on the show, presents the possibility of a leak that could severely embarrass the White House and damage significantly its already precarious relationship with the Congress. Should two powerful factors like Stennis and McClellan discover they are dupes for the administration the scandal could damage the White House for a long time to come.”
Volunteers to Head Program - Ailes writes that he wants to head any such “news network,” telling Haldeman: “Bob—if you decide to go ahead we would as a production company like to bid on packaging the entire project. I know what has to be done and we could test the feasibility for 90 days without making a commitment beyond that point.” Haldeman will grant Ailes’s request in November 1970, and will give the project a name: “Capitol News Service.” Haldeman will write: “With regard to the news programming effort as proposed last summer, Ailes feels this is a good idea and that we should be going ahead with it. Haldeman suggested the name ‘Capitol News Service’ and Ailes will probably be doing more work in this area.” Documents fail to show whether the “Capitol News Service” is ever actually implemented. [Roger Ailes, 1970; Gawker, 6/30/2011]
Television News Incorporated - Ailes will be fired from the Nixon administration in 1971; he will go on to start a similar private concern, “Television News Incorporated” (TVN—see 1971-1975), an ideological and practical predecessor to Fox News. Dickinson will write: “More important, [the document] links the plot to create what would become Television News Incorporated—the Ailes-helmed ‘fair and balanced’ mid-1970s precursor to Fox News—to the Nixon White House itself.” [Gawker, 6/30/2011; Rolling Stone, 7/1/2011] A former business colleague of Ailes’s will say in 2011: “Everything Roger wanted to do when he started out in politics, he’s now doing 24/7 with his network [Fox News]. It’s come full circle.” [Rolling Stone, 5/25/2011]

Entity Tags: John Cook, George C. Wallace, Fox News, Bush administration (43), Ailes Communications, H.R. Haldeman, George Herbert Walker Bush, Tim Dickinson, Television News Incorporated, Tell it to Hanoi Committee, REA Productions, John Stennis, John Little McClellan, Nixon administration, Roger Ailes

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

Clips of Thompson, Bush included in VNRs provided to local TV stations.Clips of Thompson, Bush included in VNRs provided to local TV stations. [Source: New York Times]New York Times reporter Robert Pear discovers that the Bush administration has employed two fake “reporters,” Karen Ryan and Alberto Garcia, who have appeared in administration-produced television “news” segments—“video news releases,” or VNRs—designed to promote the administration’s new Medicare prescription-drug policies. (Garcia primarily appeared in Spanish-language Medicare VNRs.) HHS had budgeted $124 million for the fake news segments, more than most real news organizations can provide. The segments are under investigation by the General Accounting Office (GAO) for possible violation of government statutes prohibiting the use of federal money to produce propaganda or partisan presentations. The Secretary for Health and Human Services (HHS), Tommy Thompson, appears in one of the segments, saying, “This is going to be the same Medicare system only with new benefits, more choices, more opportunities for enhanced benefits.” Several others show a crowd giving President Bush a standing ovation as he signs the new Medicare bill into law. Another segment shows a pharmacist talking to an elderly customer. The pharmacist says the new law “helps you better afford your medications,” and the customer says, “It sounds like a good idea.” The pharmacist agrees, “A very good idea.” The segments, professionally produced and ending with tag lines such as “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting,” were regularly aired by at least 50 local television news broadcasts in 40 cities around the country. The government also provides scripts that can be used by local news anchors to introduce, or “walk up,” the VNRs. One script suggested that anchors read the following: “In December, President Bush signed into law the first-ever prescription drug benefit for people with Medicare. Since then, there have been a lot of questions about how the law will help older Americans and people with disabilities. Reporter Karen Ryan helps sort through the details.” A VNR is then broadcast explaining how the new law benefits Medicare recipients.
'Infoganda' - Ryan is a freelance journalist, the administration claims, and using her for such fake news segments is perfectly acceptable. But cursory investigation reveals that she was once a freelance reporter, but has for years worked as a public relations consultant. Her most recent assignments include appearing in marketing videos and “infomercials” promoting a variety of pharmaceutical products, including the popular drugs FloMist and Excedrin. Perhaps the most telling reaction is from Comedy Central’s comedy-news program The Daily Show, where host Jon Stewart can’t seem to decide whether to be outraged or flattered by what Rich calls “government propaganda imitating his satiric art.” (Daily Show member Rob Corddry calls the HHS videos “infoganda.”) Administration officials also insist that the VNRs are real, objective news releases, but the company that produced the segments, Home Front Communications, confirms that it had hired Ryan to read a script prepared by government officials. The VNRs give a toll-free phone number for beneficiaries to call. To obtain recorded information about prescription drug benefits, the caller must speak the words, “Medicare improvement.” The Columbia Journalism Review writes, “The ‘reports’ were nothing more than a free advertisement for the legislation, posing as news.”
Legal? - GAO lawyers say that their initial investigations found that other fliers and advertisements disseminated by HHS to promote the new Medicare policies are legal, though they display “notable omissions and other weaknesses.” Administration officials claim the VNRs are also a legal, effective way to educate Medicare beneficiaries. The GAO is still investigating the VNRs. GAO investigators believe that they might violate the law in at least one aspect: misleading viewers by concealing their government origins. Federal law expressly forbids the use of federal money for “publicity or propaganda purposes” not authorized by Congress. Earlier investigations have found government-disseminated editorials and newspaper articles illegal if they did not identify themselves as coming from government officials. The GAO will find that the VNRs break two federal laws forbidding the use of federal money to produce propaganda (see May 19, 2004).
'Common Practice' - HHS spokesman Kevin Keane says the VNRs are well within legal guidelines; their only purpose, he says, is to inform citizens about changes in Medicare. “The use of video news releases is a common, routine practice in government and the private sector,” he says. “Anyone who has questions about this practice needs to do some research on modern public information tools.” Congressional Democrats disagree with Keane. “These materials are even more disturbing than the Medicare flier and advertisements,” says Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). “The distribution of these videos is a covert attempt to manipulate the press.” Lautenberg, fellow Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), and seven other members of Congress requested the GAO investigation. Keane is correct in one aspect: businesses have distributed VNRs to news stations as well as internally for years, and the pharmaceutical industry has been particularly successful in getting marketing videos that appear as “medical news” or “medical features” aired on local and even national news broadcasts. And government agencies have for years released informational films and videos on subjects such as teenage smoking and the dangers of using steroids. Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, says HHS’s VNRs have gone far beyond what the government has previously provided. “Those to me are just the next thing to fraud,” he says. “It’s running a paid advertisement in the heart of a news program.” [New York Times, 3/15/2004; Columbia Journalism Review, 3/15/2004; Rich, 2006, pp. 164]
Media Responsibility - The Columbia Journalism Review’s Bill McDermott writes: “[F]or our money, the villains here aren’t the clever flacks at HHS—they’re supposed to be masters of deception. Nope, the dunce hats go to the local TV station editors willing to slap onto the air any video that drops in over the transom.” [Columbia Journalism Review, 3/15/2004] Ryan is relatively insouciant about the controversy. “Stations are lazy,” she says. “If these things didn’t work, then the companies would stop putting them out.” [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 3/20/2004]

Entity Tags: Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, US Department of Health and Human Services, Committee of Concerned Journalists, Bush administration (43), Bill McDermott, Bill Kovach, Alberto Garcia, Tommy G. Thompson, Columbia Journalism Review, Robert Pear, New York Times, Jon Stewart, Home Front Communications, George W. Bush, Karen Ryan, General Accounting Office, Kevin Keane, Frank R. Lautenberg, Rob Corddry

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

The General Accounting Office (GAO) finds that the Bush administration broke two federal laws as part of its publicity campaign to promote its new Medicare prescription drug policies. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) illegally spent federal monies on what amounts to covert propaganda in producing and distributing “video news releases,” or VNRs, to local television news broadcasters around the country that were designed to look like objective news reports (see March 15, 2004). The GAO findings do not carry legal weight, because the GAO acts as an adviser to Congress. The viewers in the more than 40 cities who saw the reports did not know they were watching government-produced videos anchored by public relations “flacks” paid by HHS who were not real reporters. The VNRs have only fueled criticism of the Medicare prescription drug coverage program, which gives private health care firms and prescription drug companies a much larger role in providing and setting prices for Medicare recipients’ prescriptions. Democrats have long insisted that the law cripples Medicare beneficiaries’ ability to receive low-cost prescriptions in favor of funneling Medicare dollars into the pharmaceutical companies’ coffers; with the GAO findings, Democrats now say that the government used illegal propaganda tactics to “sell” the citizenry on the new program. The administration has already admitted that the program will cost hundreds of billions of dollars more than originally claimed. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (D-MA) calls the videos “another example of how this White House has misrepresented its Medicare plan.” Kerry’s Senate colleague, Edward Kennedy (D-MA), says: “The new GAO opinion is yet another indictment of the deception and dishonesty that has become business as usual for the Bush administration. It was bad enough to conceal the cost of the Medicare drug bill from the Congress and the American people. It is worse to use Medicare funds for illegal propaganda to try to turn this lemon of a bill into lemonade for the Bush campaign.” The Bush administration continues to insist that the VNR program is legal. “GAO opinions are not binding on the executive branch. That’s an opinion of the GAO. We don’t agree,” says HHS spokesman Bill Pierce, who justifies the VNR usage by pointing to their ubiquitous usage in corporate settings. Asked if he understands that a viewer might be angry at being led to believe that the VNRs were real news stories, Pierce replies, “If I’m a viewer, I’d be angry at my television station.” [Washington Post, 5/20/2004; Los Angeles Times, 5/20/2004]

Entity Tags: John Kerry, Bill Pierce, Bush administration (43), Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, General Accounting Office, US Department of Health and Human Services

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

Steven Bradbury, the acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), issues a finding that the government’s use of “video news releases” (VNRs—see March 15, 2004 and May 19, 2004) is not propaganda and therefore not illegal. The VNRs might be “covert,” he writes, since the government actively misled viewers as to their source, but they are not “propaganda,” since they merely explain government programs and facts, and do not espouse a political point of view. Because OLC opinions are legally binding, Bradbury’s “advisory opinion” effectively precludes White House and other agency officials from being prosecuted for authorizing the VNRs, and the practice continues. The General Accounting Office (GAO) rejects Bradbury’s finding and continues to insist that the VNRs are unethical and illegal. [Savage, 2007, pp. 172-173] Two months later, Congress will prohibit the government’s use of VNRs (see May 2005).

Entity Tags: Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Bush administration (43), Steven Bradbury, General Accounting Office, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

Stations such as Los Angeles’s KABC-TV routinely re-edit graphics to fit their own formatting. The graphic on the left was part of a VNR produced by a private firm; on the right is KABC’s edited graphic.Stations such as Los Angeles’s KABC-TV routinely re-edit graphics to fit their own formatting. The graphic on the left was part of a VNR produced by a private firm; on the right is KABC’s edited graphic. [Source: PRWatch (.org)] (click image to enlarge)An investigation by the New York Times reveals that the government’s use of “video news releases,” or so-called “fake news” reports provided by the government and presented to television news viewers as real news (see March 15, 2004), has been used by far more government agencies than previously reported. The Times report finds that VNRs from the State Department, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the Agriculture Department are among the agencies providing VNRs to local television news broadcasters. Previous media reports focused largely on the VNRs provided by the Department of Health and Human Services to tout the Bush administration’s Medicare proposals. The Times finds that “at least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years.… Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government’s role in their production.… [T]he [Bush] administration’s efforts to generate positive news coverage have been considerably more pervasive than previously known. At the same time, records and interviews suggest widespread complicity or negligence by television stations, given industry ethics standards that discourage the broadcast of prepackaged news segments from any outside group without revealing the source.”
VNRs Presented as Actual News - While government VNRs are generally labeled as being government productions on the film canister or video label, the VNRs themselves are designed, the Times writes, “to fit seamlessly into the typical local news broadcast. In most cases, the ‘reporters’ are careful not to state in the segment that they work for the government. Their reports generally avoid overt ideological appeals. Instead, the government’s news-making apparatus has produced a quiet drumbeat of broadcasts describing a vigilant and compassionate administration.” The VNRs often feature highly choreographed “interviews” with senior administration officials, “in which questions are scripted and answers rehearsed. Critics, though, are excluded, as are any hints of mismanagement, waste or controversy.”
Benefits to All except News Consumers - The Times explains how VNRs benefit the Bush administration, private public relations firms, networks, and local broadcasters: “Local affiliates are spared the expense of digging up original material. Public relations firms secure government contracts worth millions of dollars. The major networks, which help distribute the releases, collect fees from the government agencies that produce segments and the affiliates that show them. The administration, meanwhile, gets out an unfiltered message, delivered in the guise of traditional reporting.” News viewers, however, receive propaganda messages masquerading as real, supposedly impartial news reports.
Ducking Responsibility - Administration officials deny any responsibility for the use of VNRs as “real” news. “Talk to the television stations that ran it without attribution,” says William Pierce, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services. “This is not our problem. We can’t be held responsible for their actions.” But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has disagreed, calling the use of government-produced VNRs “covert propaganda” because news viewers do not know that the segments they are watching are government productions (see May 19, 2004). However, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Justice Department (see March 2005) have called the practice legal, and instructed executive branch agencies to merely ignore the GAO findings.
Creative Editing - The Times gives an example of how seamlessly government-produced propaganda can be transformed into seemingly real news segments. In one segment recently provided by the Agriculture Department, the agency’s narrator ends the segment by saying, “In Princess Anne, Maryland, I’m Pat O’Leary reporting for the US Department of Agriculture.” The segment is distributed by AgDay, a syndicated farm news program shown on some 160 stations; the segment is introduced as being by “AgDay’s Pat O’Leary.” The final sentence was edited to state: “In Princess Anne, Maryland, I’m Pat O’Leary reporting.” Final result: viewers are unaware that the AgDay segment is actually an Agriculture Department production. AgDay executive producer Brian Conrady defends the practice: “We can clip ‘Department of Agriculture’ at our choosing. The material we get from the [agency], if we choose to air it and how we choose to air it is our choice.” The public relations industry agrees with Conrady; many large PR firms produce VNRs both for government and corporate use, and the Public Relations Society of America gives an annual award, the Bronze Anvil, for the year’s best VNR.
Complicity by News Broadcasters - Several major television networks help distribute VNRs. Fox News has a contract with PR firm Medialink to distribute VNRs to 130 affiliates through its video feed service, Fox News Edge. CNN distributes VNRs to 750 stations in the US and Canada through its feed service, CNN Newsource. The Associated Press’s television news distributor does the same with its Global Video Wire. Fox News Edge director David Winstrom says: “We look at them and determine whether we want them to be on the feed. If I got one that said tobacco cures cancer or something like that, I would kill it.” TVA Productions, a VNR producer and distributor, says in a sales pitch to potential clients, “No TV news organization has the resources in labor, time or funds to cover every worthy story.” Almost “90 percent of TV newsrooms now rely on video news releases,” it claims. The reach can be enormous. Government-produced VNRs from the Office of National Drug Control Policy reached some 22 million households over 300 news stations. And news stations often re-record the voiceover of VNRs by their own reporters, adding to the illusion that their own reporters, and not government or PR employees, are doing the actual reporting.
Office of Broadcasting Services - The State Department’s Office of Broadcasting Services (OBS) employs around 30 editors and technicians, who before 2002 primarily distributed video from news conferences. But in early 2002, the OBS began working with close White House supervision to produce narrated feature reports promoting American policies and achievements in Afghanistan and Iraq, and supporting the Bush administration’s rationale for invading those countries. Between 2002 and now, the State Department has produced 59 such segments, which were distributed to hundreds of domestic and international television broadcasters. The State Department says that US laws prohibiting the domestic dissemination of propaganda don’t apply to the OBS. Besides, says State Department spokesman Richard Boucher: “Our goal is to put out facts and the truth. We’re not a propaganda agency.” State Department official Patricia Harrison told Congress last year that such “good news” segments are “powerful strategic tools” for influencing public opinion. The Times reports that “a review of the department’s segments reveals a body of work in sync with the political objectives set forth by the White House communications team after 9/11.” One June 2003 VNR produced by the OBS depicts US efforts to distribute food and water to the people of southern Iraq. The unidentified narrator condluded, “After living for decades in fear, they are now receiving assistance—and building trust—with their coalition liberators.” OBS produced several segments about the liberation of Afghan women; a January 2003 memo called the segments “prime example[s]” of how “White House-led efforts could facilitate strategic, proactive communications in the war on terror.” OBS typically distributes VNRs through international news organizations such as Reuters and the Associated Press, which then distribute them to major US networks, which in turn transmit them to local affiliates.
The Pentagon Channel and 'Hometown News' - In 2004, the Defense Department began providing The Pentagon Channel, formerly an in-house service, to cable and satellite operators in the US. The content is provided by Pentagon public relations specialists who produce “news reports” identical to those produced by local and national news broadcasters. And the content is free. The Pentagon Channel’s content is supplemented by the Army and Air Force Hometown News Service (HNS), a 40-man unit that produces VNRs for local broadcasters focusing on the accomplishments of “hometown” soldiers. Deputy director Larry Gilliam says of the service, “We’re the ‘good news’ people.” Their reports, tailored for specific local stations, reached 41 million households in 2004. But the service’s VNRs sometimes go beyond celebrating a hometown hero. Weeks after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, HNS released a VNR that lauded the training of military policemen at Missouri’s Fort Leonard Wood, where many of the MPs involved in the scandal were trained. “One of the most important lessons they learn is to treat prisoners strictly but fairly,” the “reporter” in the segment says. A trainer tells the narrator that MPs are taught to “treat others as they would want to be treated.” Gilliam says the MP report had nothing to do with the Pentagon’s desire to defend itself from accusations of mistreatment and prisoner abuse. “Are you saying that the Pentagon called down and said, ‘We need some good publicity?’” Gilliam asks the Times reporter. He answers his own question, “No, not at all.” [New York Times, 3/13/2005]
Congress Bans Use of Government VNRs - Two months after the Times article is published, Congress will ban the use of government VNRs for propaganda purposes (see May 2005).

Congress passes a law clarifying and expanding its earlier ban on government propaganda. The new law bans the use of federal money to produce any news story (see March 2005) that does not openly acknowledge the government’s role in producing and slanting that story. The new law dramatically restricts the ability of the federal government to produce and disseminate fake news stories (VNRs—see March 15, 2004 and May 19, 2004) in local news broadcasts. [Savage, 2007, pp. 173]

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

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