t is the kind of TV news coverage every president covets.
"Thank you, Bush. Thank you, U.S.A.," a jubilant Iraqi-American told a
camera crew in Kansas City for a segment about reaction to the fall of
Baghdad. A second report told of "another success" in the Bush
administration's "drive to strengthen aviation security"; the reporter
called it "one of the most remarkable campaigns in aviation history." A
third segment, broadcast in January, described the administration's
determination to open markets for American farmers.
To a viewer, each report looked like any other 90-second segment on the
local news. In fact, the federal government produced all three. The
report from Kansas City was made by the State Department. The
"reporter" covering airport safety was actually a public relations
professional working under a false name for the Transportation Security
Administration. The farming segment was done by the Agriculture
Department's office of communications.
Under the Bush
administration, the federal government has aggressively used a
well-established tool of public relations: the prepackaged,
ready-to-serve news report that major corporations have long
distributed to TV stations to pitch everything from headache remedies
to auto insurance. In all, 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, records
and interviews show. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations
across the country without any acknowledgement of the government's role
in their production.
This winter, Washington has been roiled by
revelations that a handful of columnists wrote in support of
administration policies without disclosing they had accepted payments
from the government. But the 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.
agencies are forthright with broadcasters about the origin of the news
segments they distribute. The reports themselves, though, are designed
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
Some reports were produced to support the
administration's most cherished policy objectives, like regime change
in Iraq or Medicare reform. Others focused on less prominent matters,
like the administration's efforts to offer free after-school tutoring,
its campaign to curb childhood obesity, its initiatives to preserve
forests and wetlands, its plans to fight computer viruses, even its
attempts to fight holiday drunken driving. They often feature
"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.
the segments were broadcast in some of nation's largest television
markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta.
An examination of government-produced news reports offers a look inside
a world where the traditional lines between public relations and
journalism have become tangled, where local anchors introduce
prepackaged segments with "suggested" lead-ins written by public
relations experts. It is a world where government-produced reports
disappear into a maze of satellite transmissions, Web portals,
syndicated news programs and network feeds, only to emerge cleansed on
the other side as "independent" journalism.
It is also a world where all participants benefit.