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Don Black, an Alabama white supremacist who lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, founds an organization called Stormfront. Stormfront’s Web site, Stormfront.org, will become the most prominent white supremacist site on the Internet, and will come to serve as the hub of a network of related Web sites. (Swain and Nieli 1995, pp. 153-157; Southern Poverty Law Center 6/2001; Kim 6/2005) The site states its purpose: “Stormfront is a resource for those courageous men and women fighting to preserve their White Western culture, ideals, and freedom of speech and association—a forum for planning strategies and forming political and social groups to ensure victory.” (Abel 2/19/1998) The Stormfront motto is “White Pride World Wide.” Bob DeMarais, a former staff member of the neo-Nazi National Alliance (see 1970-1974), later writes, “Without a doubt, Stormfront is the most powerful active influence in the White Nationalist movement.” By 2005, the site will boast some 52,000 members and Jamie Kelso, who will begin working with Black in 2002, will claim 500 new members join every week. DeMarais will give Kelso a great deal of credit for building the Stormfront community of users. (Kim 6/2005) The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) will call Stormfront.org the first “hate site” on the Internet. (Southern Poverty Law Center 6/2001)
Began Extolling White Supremacist Ideology in High School, Went on to Lead KKK - Black began his career as a white supremacist while still in high school in the early 1970s, joining the National Socialist White People’s Party and handing out racist tabloids to his fellow students. In 1971, he was shot by Jerry Ray, the manager for white supremacist J.B. Stoner’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in Georgia. Ray, the brother of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s assassin James Earl Ray, thought that Black had broken into Stoner’s office to steal a mailing list for the National Socialist White People’s Party. Black recovered, and attended the University of Alabama, where he was ejected from the ROTC program for his racist statements. Subsequently he began working with Klan leader David Duke to revitalize the foundering Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). According to a 1995 report by the progressive New Times: “Duke taught Black it’s easier to attract supporters by criticizing affirmative action, illegitimate welfare births, and illegal immigration than labeling blacks as inferior or Jews as rich enemies. The goal was to avoid inflammatory remarks and present oneself as dignified—sticking to the issues. Supremacy is presented as nationalism. And intolerance warps into a preference for one’s own heritage.” After Duke was forced out of the KKK over allegations of selling its mailing list, Black took over the organization until 1981, when he spent three years in prison for fomenting a plot with other supremacists to invade the tiny Caribbean island nation of Dominica (see June 21, 1981). Black learned to program computers during his prison term. He returned to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1985, telling friends, “I’m here to build the greatest white racist regime this country has ever seen.” After quitting the Klan because of its overt advocacy of violence, he decided to execute his plans via the Internet, still in its infancy at the time. (Swain and Nieli 1995, pp. 153-157; Abel 2/19/1998; Etchingham 1/12/2000; Kim 6/2005) Black’s efforts will be quite successful; in 1995, he will tell a reporter: “A third of households have computers and with the phenomenal growth of the Internet, tens of millions of people have access to our message if they wish. The access is anonymous and there is unlimited ability to communicate with others of a like mind.” (Schneider 3/13/1995)
Launches Internet BBS that Becomes Stormfront - In 1991, having married Duke’s ex-wife Chloe and moved to Florida, Black launched an Internet bulletin board (BBS) to support Duke’s unsuccessful candidacy for a US Senate seat from Louisiana. In early posts on Stormfront, Black explains that white Americans have as much right to espouse their culture as any other group, and says that Stormfront attempts to provide an alternative to the mainstream American media, which he says is dominated by Jews and liberals who routinely disparage and mock whites. Black says that his racist views are in line with those held by Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers. He calls the site the Internet presence for the “white nationalist” movement, which proclaims its intention to “separate” from minorities and found an all-white nation or state within American borders. He will tell a reporter: “We believe that our people, white people in this country and throughout the world, are being discriminated against. They’re being treated as second-class citizens. We’re tired of seeing other racial and ethnic groups impose their agenda on us.” (Swain and Nieli 1995, pp. 153-157; Abel 2/19/1998; Etchingham 1/12/2000)
Expansion - Between 1995 and 1997, Stormfront features the violent, racist writings of the National Alliance’s William Pierce (see 1978), his former mentor David Duke, the National Alliance’s Institute for Historical Review (a Holocaust-denying think tank), and others. The site promotes an array of conspiracy theories surrounding the 1992 Ruby Ridge shootings (see August 31, 1992), the 1993 Branch Davidian debacle (see April 19, 1993), and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995). On Stormfront’s Web site, right-wing lawyer Kirk Lyons compares the Branch Davidian events to the Nazi destruction of the Czechoslovakian town of Lidice. Anti-Semitic writer Eustace Mullins suggests that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization dedicated to tracking and challenging racist organizations, was behind the Oklahoma City bombing. The site houses a library of neo-Nazi graphics available for download, a list of phone numbers for racist computer bulletin boards not on the Internet, and a page of links to other hate sites. By 1997, Stormfront begins hosting pages of other extremist groups such as Aryan Nations (see Early 1970s), and individuals such as Ed Fields, who publishes the racist newsletter The Truth at Last. Black reprints white supremacist articles and essays, including one that attacks the Talmud, a Jewish holy book, as filled with “malice,” “hate-mongering,” and “barbarities.” Black also reprints an essay by neo-Nazi Louis Beam (see February 1992), who claims he has knowledge of a Jewish conspiracy to censor the Internet. Black also adds new features to his site: pages “proving” the “inferiority” of the “Negro” race, a translation of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, a page of “quotes” by Jews that are either false or deliberately mistranslated along with quotes by anti-Semites, and “White Singles,” a dating service for “heterosexual, white gentiles only.” Black also adds a news section, White Nationalist News Agency (NNA), which posts the text of articles from the Associated Press and other reputable news sources, apparently without legal permission and often with racist commentary included. Black also hosts “Blitzcast,” an audio podcast that lets listeners hear speeches by the late George Lincoln Rockwell, the assassinated leader of the American Nazi Party; William Pierce; anti-Semitic Jew Benjamin Freedman; and Frank Weltner, who hosts another Black-operated site, Jew Watch. Yet another site Black hosts, Bamboo Delight, hides anti-Semitic materials behind the false front of a company selling “Tai Chi Chuan Chinese Exercise” materials. Looking past “Asian Health Philosophy” items such as the “Nine Treasure Exercises of Ancient China” videotape and the “Skinny Buddha Weight Loss Method” pamphlet, visitors find the downloadable computer programs “Jew Rats,” “Police Patriots,” “ZOG,” and “Talmud.” These programs are interactive in the same way that Web pages are interactive: users “click through” their contents, viewing various pages filled with text and graphics. “Jew Rats” is a multi-panel cartoon that depicts Jews as rats that kill Christians and encourage integration. Blacks are depicted as sub-human gorillas. “ZOG” contains the complete text of the “classic” anti-Semitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” along with dozens of other documents that claim knowledge of Jewish plans for world domination. Adrian Edward Marlow, who owns the servers Black uses for Stormfront and the other related sites, has bought over 10 domains that seem to be the URLs of prominent newspapers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Atlanta Constitution-Journal, and the London Telegraph. By October 1998, Marlow has redirected those domains directly to Stormfront. Typing in “philadelphiainquirer.com,” for example, does not bring surfers to the Philadelphia newspaper’s Web site, but to Stormfront. (The Inquirer will subsequently secure that domain name from Marlow.) (Anti-Defamation League 1998)
Deliberate Attempts at 'Moderating' Message - Black takes care not for his site to appear overly crude or violent. Forum posters are warned to avoid using racial slurs and not to post violent threats or exhortations to illegal activities, “moderating” tactics apparently learned from Duke. Black will also be somewhat successful at presenting himself, and by extension his supremacist ideology, on television, insisting that his site is more about presenting information not filtered by the “media monopoly” than promoting racist beliefs (see January 13, 1998). Kelso later tells a reporter with evident pride: “One of the things that Don Black does very well is he doesn’t fit the stereotype of an angry man. Don is the most under-recognized giant in the whole white nationalist movement.” (Kim 6/2005) Black will deny that the name “Stormfront” has any Nazi connotations, and in 1998 will explain the name, saying: “You need a colorful name. We wanted something militant-sounding that was also political and social. Stormfront says turbulence is coming, and afterwards there’ll be a cleansing effect.” Though his site is peppered with virulent anti-Semitic claims and articles, Black will deny that either he or his site espouses any hatred towards Jews. Black will also deny that he is a neo-Nazi or even a white supremacist, and say he is a “racialist” (see September 1983, March 15, 2002, July 15, 2002, and June 7, 2009) but not a racist. Black will call the term “racist” nothing more than a “scare word” with little real meaning. His son Derek will soon open a subsidiary site aimed at white children, “Stormfront for Kids” (see July 16, 2001). (Swain and Nieli 1995, pp. 153-157; Abel 2/19/1998; Etchingham 1/12/2000) In 1998, the ADL will take issue with Black’s claims of not being a racist, writing, “Though Black claims to be a ‘White Nationalist,’ not a hatemonger, his idea of ‘White Pride’ involves demeaning, demonizing, and menacing Jews and non-whites, and his concept of ‘victory’ includes the creation of ethnically cleansed political enclaves. (Anti-Defamation League 1998) In 2001, David Friedman of the Anti-Defamation League will tell a reporter: “Put aside your prejudices about who’s in the hate movement. If you’re looking for people in white sheets, you won’t find them. These are sophisticated bigots who have thought very carefully about the best ways to proselytize people to their hate.” (McKelvey 7/16/2001)
A truck bomb destroys the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people in America’s worst domestic terrorist attack. Timothy McVeigh, later convicted in the bombing, has ideological roots both in the Patriot world and among neo-Nazis like William Pierce, whose novel, The Turner Diaries (see 1978), served as a blueprint for the attack. (Pressley 4/20/1995; Southern Poverty Law Center 6/2001; Clarke 2004, pp. 127) Initially, many believe that no American set off the bomb, and suspect Islamist terrorists of actually carrying out the bombing (see 10:00 a.m. April 19, 1995 and After). Their suspicions prove groundless. Investigators will find that the bomb is constructed of some 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, carried in 20 or so blue plastic 55-gallon barrels arranged inside a rented Ryder truck (see April 15, 1995). The bomb is detonated by a slow-burning safety fuse, most likely lit by hand. The fuse is attached to a much faster-burning detonation cord (“det cord”) which ignites the fertilizer and fuel-oil mixture. (Bernstein 4/27/1995) The Murrah Federal Building houses a number of federal agencies, including offices for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF); the Social Security Administration; the Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Veterans Affairs, and Agriculture departments; and the Secret Service. (Pressley 4/20/1995) It encompasses an entire city block, between 5th and 4th Streets and Harvey and Robinson Streets, and features a U-shaped, indented drive on 5th that allows for quick pickup and delivery parking. The entire building’s facade on this side is made of glass, allowing passersby to see into the offices in the building, as well as into the America’s Kids day care center on the second floor, which by this time is filling with children. It is in this driveway that McVeigh parks his truck. (Serrano 1998, pp. 99-102)
Entering the City - McVeigh drives into Oklahoma City, entering around 8:30 a.m. from his overnight stop in Ponca City, Oklahoma; the details reported of his entrance into the city vary (see 7:00 a.m. - 8:35 a.m., April 19, 1995). At 8:55 a.m., a security camera captures the Ryder truck as it heads towards downtown Oklahoma City (Douglas O. Linder 2006) , a sighting bolstered by three people leaving the building who later say they saw the truck parked in front of the Murrah Building around this time. At 8:57, a security camera captures an image of McVeigh’s Ryder truck being parked outside the Murrah Building in a handicapped zone. One survivor of the blast, Marine recruiter Michael Norfleet, later recalls seeing the Ryder truck parked just outside the building next to the little circle drive on 5th Street leading up to the main entrance of the building. Norfleet had parked his black Ford Ranger in front of the Ryder.
McVeigh Lights Fuses - McVeigh drives the Ryder truck west past the Murrah Building on NW Fourth Street, turns north on a one-way street, and turns right on Fifth Street. He pulls the truck over and parks near the Firestone store, next to a chain-link fence. He then lights the five-minute fuses from inside the cab (see 8:15 a.m. and After, April 18, 1995), sets the parking brake, drops the key behind the seat, opens the door, locks the truck, exits, and shuts the door behind him. A man later claims to have hit his brakes to avoid someone matching McVeigh’s description as he crossed Fifth Street around 9:00 a.m. McVeigh walks quickly toward a nearby YMCA building where he has hidden his getaway car, a battered yellow Mercury Marquis (see April 13, 1995), in the adjoining alleyway, crossing Robinson Street and crossing another street to get to the alleyway. He begins to jog as he approaches his car. He later says he remembers a woman looking at him as she is walking down the steps to enter the building; he will describe her as white, in her mid-30s, with dirty blonde hair. According to McVeigh’s own recollection, he is about 20 feet into the alley when the bomb goes off. (Stickney 1996, pp. 184-185; PBS Frontline 1/22/1996; Serrano 1998, pp. 158; Douglas O. Linder 2006; The Oklahoman 4/2009)
Truck Explodes - At 9:02 a.m., the truck explodes, destroying most of the Murrah Building and seriously damaging many nearby buildings. Eventually, it will be determined that 168 people die in the blast, including 19 children. Over 500 are injured. The children are in the second-story day care center just above the parking space where McVeigh leaves the Ryder truck. McVeigh will later tell his biographers that he is lifted off his feet by the power of the blast.
Devastation and Death - When the bomb detonates, the day care center and the children plummet into the basement. The building, constructed with large glass windows, collapses, sending a wave of flying glass shards and debris into the building and the surrounding area. The oldest victim is 73-year-old Charles Hurlbert, who has come to the Social Security office on the first floor. Hurlbert’s wife Jean, 67, also dies in the blast. The youngest victim is four-month-old Gabeon Bruce, whose mother is also in the Social Security office. One victim, Rebecca Anderson, is a nurse who runs towards the building to render assistance. She never makes it to the building; she is struck in the head by a piece of falling debris and will die in a hospital four days after the blast. Her heart and kidneys will be transplanted into survivors of the bombing. (Eddy et al. 6/3/1997; Thomas 6/3/1997; Serrano 1998, pp. 153-154; Oklahoma City Journal Record 3/29/2001) Sherri Sparks, who has friends still unaccounted for in the building, tells a reporter in the hours after the blast, “Oh, I can’t stand the thought of… those innocent children, sitting there playing, thinking they’re safe, and then this happens.” The explosion leaves a 30-foot-wide, 8-foot-deep crater in the street that is covered by the wreckage of the building’s upper floors. The north face of the nine-story building collapses entirely. (Pressley 4/20/1995; Walsh 4/22/1995) Mary Heath, a psychologist who works about 20 blocks from the Murrah Building, says the blast “shook the daylights out of things—it scared us to death. We felt the windows shake before we heard the noise.” In a neighboring building, a Water Resources Board meeting is just commencing; the audiotape of the meeting captures the sound of the blast (see 9:02 a.m. and After, April 19, 1995). (Pressley 4/20/1995; The Oklahoman 4/2009) Norfleet, trapped in the Marine Corps office, is thrown into a wall by the explosion. His skull is fractured, and a shard of glass punctures his right eye. Three separate arteries are pierced, and Norfleet begins bleeding heavily. Two supply sergeants in the office are far less injured; Norfleet asks one, “How bad am I hurt?” and one replies, “Sir, you look really bad.” One of the two begins giving Norfleet first aid; Norfleet later recalls: “He immediately went into combat mode and started taking care of me. He laid me on a table and he started looking for bandages to administer first aid. And while I was laying on that table, I just knew that I was losing strength and that if I stayed in the building, I would die.” Norfleet wraps a shirt around his head and face to slow the bleeding, and the two sergeants help him to the stairs, through the fallen rubble, and eventually out. Norfleet will later say that he follows “a blood trail of somebody that had gone down the steps before me” to get outside, where he is quickly put into an ambulance. He loses almost half his body’s blood supply and his right eye. He will never fly again, and will soon be discharged for medical incapacity. (Serrano 1998, pp. 161-162) Eighteen-month-old Phillip Allen, called “P.J.” by his parents, miraculously survives the blast. The floor gives way beneath him and he plunges 18 feet to land on the stomach of an adult worker on the floor below, Calvin Johnson. Landing on Johnson’s stomach saves P.J.‘s life. Johnson is knocked unconscious by the blast and by the impact of the little boy falling on him, but when he awakes, he carries the toddler to safety. P.J.‘s grandfather calls the child “Oklahoma’s miracle kid,” and media reports use the label when retelling the story of the miraculous rescue. P.J. is one of six children in the day care center to survive the blast. (Stickney 1996, pp. 275-277) Some people later report their belief that the Murrah Building was rocked by a second explosion just moments after the first one, the second coming from a secure area managed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) that illegally stored explosives. Law professor Douglas O. Linder will later write, “Both seismic evidence and witness testimony supports the ‘two blast theory.’” (Douglas O. Linder 2006) That theory is later disputed (see After 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995).
Explosion's Effects Felt Miles Away - Buildings near the Murrah are also damaged, seven severely, including the Journal Record newspaper building, the offices of Southwestern Bell, the Water Resources Board, an Athenian restaurant, the YMCA, a post office building, and the Regency Tower Hotel. Two Water Resources Board employees and a restaurant worker are killed in the blast. The Journal Record building loses its roof. Assistant Fire Chief Jon Hansen later recalls, “The entire block looked like something out of war-torn Bosnia.” Every building within four blocks of the Murrah suffers some effects. A United Parcel Service truck 10 miles away has its windows shattered by the blast. Cars in parking lots around the area catch fire and burn. Millions of sheets of paper, and an innumerable number of glass shards, shower down for hundreds of feet around the building. (Stickney 1996, pp. 28-30)
Truck Axle Crushes Nearby Car - Richard Nichols (no relation to bomber Timothy McVeigh’s co-conspirator Terry Nichols), a maintenance worker standing with his wife a block and a half away from the Murrah Building, is spun around by the force of the blast. They throw open the back door of their car and begin taking their young nephew Chad Nichols out of the back seat, when Richard sees a large shaft of metal hurtling towards them. The “humongous object… spinning like a boomerang,” as Richard later describes it, hits the front of their Ford Festiva, smashing the windshield, crushing the front end, driving the rear end high into the air, and sending the entire car spinning backwards about 10 feet. Chad is not seriously injured. The metal shaft is the rear axle of the Ryder truck. Later, investigators determine that it weighs 250 pounds and was blown 575 feet from where the truck was parked. Governor Frank Keating (R-OK) points out the axle to reporters when he walks the scene a day or so later, causing some media outlets to incorrectly report that Keating “discovered” the axle. The scene will take investigators days to process for evidence. (Stickney 1996, pp. 32; Thomas 6/3/1997; Serrano 1998, pp. 187-189)
First Responders Begin Arriving - Within minutes, survivors begin evacuating the building, and first responders appear on the scene (see 9:02 a.m. - 10:35 a.m. April 19, 1995).
McVeigh's Getaway - McVeigh flees the bomb site in his Mercury getaway car (see 9:02 a.m. and After, April 19, 1995), but is captured less than 90 minutes later (see 9:03 a.m. -- 10:17 a.m. April 19, 1995).
Evidence in the case against accused Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995 and August 10, 1995) indicates that McVeigh was inspired largely by two books: a well-known favorite among white supremacists, the William Pierce novel The Turner Diaries (see 1978) and a second non-fiction book, Armed and Dangerous: The Rise of the Survivalist Right, by Chicago Tribune reporter James Coates. Coates wrote the book to warn against the dangers of far-right militia groups. McVeigh also drew inspiration for the bombing from the exploits of The Order, a far-right organization that staged armored car robberies (see April 19-23, 1984), murdered progressive radio host Alan Berg (see June 18, 1984 and After), and finally ceased operations when federal authorities killed its leader, Robert Jay Mathews, in a fiery shootout (see December 8, 1984). The Coates book, checked out from a library in Kingman, Arizona, by McVeigh, was found among other evidence seized from the Kansas home of his co-conspirator, Terry Nichols (see 3:15 p.m. and After, April 21-22, 1995 and April 24, 1995). A Kingman librarian says the book has been overdue for so long that it was purged from the library’s computer database. A person closely involved in the case tells a reporter that McVeigh had cited Chapter 2 of the Coates book, which describes how The Order grew from a small collection of bumblers into a heavily armed, well-financed terrorist cadre that used the proceeds of crimes to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to other far-right groups and buy land, guns, vehicles, and guard dogs. As for The Turner Diaries, a person involved in the case calls it McVeigh’s “Bible.” The Order viewed the Pierce novel as required reading, and used the exploits of the white supremacists in it to inspire and guide their own criminal activities. The Oklahoma City bombing closely mirrors the bombing of FBI headquarters in the Pierce novel; in the book, white revolutionaries use a truck filled with an explosive combination of fertilizer and fuel oil to destroy the building. The book calls the FBI bombing “propaganda of the deed,” an exemplary act meant to inspire others to strike their own blows. The McVeigh and Nichols indictments cite the two books, along with a prepaid telephone card issued by The Spotlight, an anti-Semitic newspaper issued by the white supremacist Liberty Lobby (see August 1994). According to Nichols’s defense team, Nichols had withdrawn from the bomb plot in March 1995 (see March 1995 and May 25 - June 2, 1995), and McVeigh showed close friends the copy of the Coates book, directing them to read the chapter on The Order, in what they say was an attempt to solicit others to help him carry out the bomb plot. (Kifner 8/21/1995)
William Pierce, the head of the National Alliance (see 1970-1974) and the author of the infamous race-war fantasy The Turner Diaries (see 1978), says that Timothy McVeigh, the convicted Oklahoma City bomber (see June 2, 1997 and June 11-13, 1997) who was inspired by Pierce’s book, is a “man of principle” who is “willing to accept the consequences” for what he did. However, Pierce does not give his blessing to McVeigh’s act of terrorism, saying: “I wouldn’t have chosen to do what he did.… It’s really shameful to kill a lot of people when there’s no hope for accomplishing anything.” He says that while some of his NA members quit after the bombing, new ones joined: “Probably, on the whole, it was helpful,” he says. (Thomas 6/9/2001; Anti-Defamation League 2005)
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.” (Barstow and Stein 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).
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