Video News Releases - They’re Everywhere!

Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that local news stations had aired, as news, a video news release (VNR) produced by the Bush administration that promoted the Medicare drug benefit. The video was narrated by a PR executive posing as a journalist, who signed off with the words, “I’m Karen Ryan reporting from Washington.” Campaign Desk picked up on the Times’ scoop: We revealed CNN’s role in the dissemination of the VNRs, and discovered that Ryan herself had starred in numerous similar productions, pitching everything from headache medicine to video games but portrayed, always, as a reporter.

This week, it came out that Ryan had made yet VNR for the Bush administration, this one on behalf of the Department of Education, touting tutoring programs offered as part of the No Child Left Behind Act. And we listed the local news stations that got suckered into running fake news this time around.

But it turns out that the No Child Left Behind VNR, presented as news, ran more widely than we had thought - it’s just that it didn’t always include Karen Ryan. A number of local stations ran the VNR as is, and added a local twist by simply having their own reporter read the script. And in an indication of just how confident the Department of Education was that news outlets would fail to adequately scrutinize the content of the VNR, we’ve also found that it included sound bites in support of the tutoring program from two figures whose appearance in the video might have raised eyebrows had anyone thought to check.

On October 1, 2003, anchor Megan Baker of News Channel 9 in Albany, NY, presented a “story” titled “Federal Funds Pay for Tutoring Programs.” The script that Baker read appears to be lifted directly from the VNR sent out by the Department of Education. Unsurprisingly, it includes not a single negative word about a Bush administration initiative — No Child Left Behind — whose implementation has been controversial enough to become a campaign issue. And four other local stations - WXIA-TV Atlanta, WPVI-TV Philadelphia, KPRC-TV Houston, and WXYZ-TV Detroit, appear to have done the same thing or something close to it.

WXIA-Atlanta reporter Donna Lowry narrated a segment on the tutoring program in September of last year, based heavily on the Department of Education VNR. Lowry took nearly two minutes of material from the VNR. She told Campaign Desk that she customized the report with an opening and closing to localize the segment for Atlanta, but the visual component consisted entirely of clips lifted directly from the VNR.

Lowry said the VNR’s timing and subject matter (a registration deadline for students in need) was a “special case” resulting in her using “more [of the VNR] than I’ve ever used.” She’s aware, she said, that people featured in VNRs are often chosen specifically for their point of view, but admitted that she never checks out them out, saying she doesn’t have the resources.

Lowry added that her discussion with Campaign Desk will “make her think a whole lot more about” her use of VNRs. She also made it clear that WXIA has a policy against using VNRs in their entirety.

Judging from Lexis-Nexis transcripts — which list the people quoted in the story and the gist of their comments, but do not provide the complete text — the segments run by the other three stations consisted, like the News Channel 9 story, of nothing more than a local reporter parroting the VNR.

WPVI today released a statement to Campaign Desk saying: “It would be against WPVI policy to run EPK’s [Electronic Press Kits] as news packages. If such a package did indeed air, it would be an error and we will look into it.”

But it stretches the bounds of credulity to imagine that the station could have received the VNR, then had its reporter, Rick Williams, read the transcript in his voice, then had a news director sign off on the segment, and then aired it, all without ever realizing that the “story” was in fact promotional material packaged by the government.

Neither KPRC nor WXYZ returned our calls requesting comment.

As we reported back in March, the stations that ran the Medicare VNR told Campaign Desk that they did so unknowingly, and all said they had strict policies against running unedited VNRs as news segments. Most attributed the error to hurried producers, looking to fill airtime and dispensing with the usual checks and balances. Their sin, in other words, appeared to be one of carelessness (or perhaps laziness) but not of willful deception.

But the stations that took the time to have their own reporters record the script of the No Child Left Behind VNR had to have been fully aware of what they were doing: knowingly deceiving their viewers about the origins of the story — not to mention committing plagiarism — by passing off as their own original reporting words actually written by a PR company hired by the Bush administration.

It gets worse. Had the news stations that ran the VNR bothered to look into its content, they might have noticed that two of the people quoted in support of the tutoring program had backgrounds deserving further attention.

Alberta Paul, identified in the VNR as the “services co-ordinator” of the tutoring programs, affirms in the video that “the after-school programs are working.” Paul seems an odd spokeswoman for the for the Department of Education to use: As the Washington Post and Washington Times reported in September 2000, she was forced to resign as head of information technology for the Prince George’s County (Md.) Board of Education in September 2000 amid allegations that she had misrepresented the credentials on her resume. Previously, Paul had been investigated for calling a subordinate a “dumb white guy.” (The results of the investigation were not publicly released.)

A little more research by the news stations would also have called into question the status of the sole parent featured in the VNR, Valerie Garland, as an unbiased source. In the video, Garland expresses frustration that her son’s high school previously lacked tutoring resources. But only two months before the first VNR-generated news story aired, President Bush, addressed students at a Washington D.C. school, promoting his school choice initiative. During the speech, Bush referred to his “emotional meeting” with Garland, noting that the “two shed a tear or two about the future.” In other words, Garland had been used previously by the Bush administration to promote a completely different aspect of its education agenda. Hardly an ordinary parent.

The day after Megan Baker’s “story” aired in Albany, it showed up on a page of the Department of Education ‘s website that showcases positive media coverage of No Child Left Behind. Thus was a self-referential loop closed: the Bush administration had produced a promotional video touting a new government program and designed to look like a complete news story; the news media had run that video as news, just as the administration had hoped; and the administration had in turn posted the story on a governmental website as evidence that the program was generating positive news coverage. Things had come full circle.

In the process, the complicit press took the process one step farther than Karen Ryan had. It’s one thing for a PR operative to pose as a reporter; it’s another for a reporter to act as a cog in the PR wheel of a government agency.

Thomas Lang and Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.