Sunday, April 17, 2005

This "news" story brought to you by...

This article at caught our eye:

Bush Supports Indecency Standards for Cable, Satellite

President Bush said Thursday he supports the concept of indecency standards for cable TV and satellite.

In remarks before the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in Washington, the president also said parents share a responsibility over the kind of programming they allow in their homes. "But I don't mind standards being set out for people to adjudge the content of a show, to help parents make right decisions," he said. "Government ought to help parents, not hinder parents in sending good messages to their children."

President Bush said that in a free society, the marketplace makes decisions. "If you don't like something, don't watch it, and presumably advertising dollars will wither and the show will go off the air," he said. "But I have no problems with standards being set to help parents make good decisions."

Contrast that with this from a Washington Post story about the FCC ordering broadcasters to reveal sources of video news releases:
The Lautenberg-Kerry amendment follows a GAO recommendation to include on-screen disclaimers during the video news release, explaining the piece was produced by the U.S. government, Lautenberg staffers said. The GAO report said the administration had violated the law by using federal money to produce propaganda.

"The government makes these things," said Dan Katz, Lautenberg's chief counsel. "If they would identify themselves upfront it would be a much more efficient way of dealing with this problem."

The Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget disagreed with the GAO's finding.

I find this a bit hypocritical on Bush's part. He favors creating "standards" for "people to adjudge the content of a show", but doesn't think his agencies need to clearly disclose that they are the producers of a "news" story. Wouldn't such disclosure aid viewers to "adjudge the content of a show?"

I agree that broadcasters bear some responsibility in identifying a news story as a produced by some entity other than the broadcaster. And most ethical news operations will either not use the video news release (VNR), as they're called, or will identify it as the public relations piece it is.

However, as Deborah Potter points out in an article at, sometimes local broadcasters don't know they're airing a VNR:
The deception couldn't succeed, however, without an accomplice or two. That's where CNN and the local stations come in. Back when VNRs arrived in newsrooms by mail, it was difficult to confuse them with legitimate news. These days, video news releases are fed to stations by distribution services like CNN Newsource, which charge VNR producers a fee for the privilege.

Some news directors say that mixing genuine news footage with PR pieces on the same feed is a recipe for trouble. Bob Longo, news director at Pittsburgh's WTAE, which aired the Medicare video twice, went even further. "It is troubling, deceptive and disturbing," he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "The piece was camouflaged deceptively as a CNN piece."

CNN insists the Medicare segment was clearly identified on the feed as a news release. But the network has since agreed to change the way it handles VNRs, by separating them from news stories on the feed, and letting stations opt out from receiving VNRs.

Of course, another problem is that stations are understaffed, making it difficult to produce enough content to fill the ever-expanding time devoted to news programming. As group owners continue looking solely at the bottom-line in an effort to squeeze as much profit as possible out of each station, news staffs will continue to shrink, increasing the likelihood that producers will use a VNR to fill up time.