House Passes VNR Amendment

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Government-produced video news releases would be required to disclose their origins under a measure approved by the House Thursday.

The House voted to prohibit the White House and federal agencies from producing video news releases intended for broadcast or distribution in the United States unless the package includes a "clear notification" within the text or audio disclosing that the prepackaged news story was prepared or funded by the government.

The measure was approved by the House as part of a larger spending bill for transportation programs, the U.S. Treasury, and other agencies. The measure was tweaked Thursday to make it clear outside contractors may not be hired to produce non-compliant VNRs either.

The House measure does not require broadcasters to air the disclosures, though FCC rules do if the VNR deals with a political or controversial subject.

The VNR measure is intended to limit the practice of distributing prepackaged pieces that TV news operations can insert into their broadcasts with little or no editing. A recent Radio-Television News Directors study suggested that few stations use such packaged pieces, primarily tapping VNR's for b-roll or excerpts.

Broadcasters say stations rarely air unedited VNRs and that no new requirements should be placed on how they use them.

The House bill also contained an amendment that would bar agencies from secretly hiring outside parties to promote government or White House policies. The amendment, sponsored by New York Democrat Maurice Hinchey, would ban such controversial practices as the Bush Administration's hiring of TV pundit Armstrong Williams to tout the President's No Child Left Behind program.

"The passage of this amendment is a critical victory for the American people who, as a result of these secret government contracts with writers, broadcasters, and public relations specialists, have been unable to determine whether they are receiving real, objective news or government-sponsored propaganda," said Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y. "Acceptance of this amendment makes it clear to the Bush Administration that the American people want real journalism, not fake news.  We have The Daily Show for that."

VNRs became controversial last year when Democrats complained about packages touting the new prescription drug plan designed by the White House. The practice was also used by the Clinton Administration too, though. For instance, Clinton White House produced VNRs opposed GOP efforts to drill for oil an Alaska wildlife preserve.

The Senate has already passed a similar VNR restriction sponsored by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V.  That measure expires Sept. 30 but Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens wants to make it permanent.

A much more restictive measure has been introduced in the Senate by Democratic Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) that would require government agencies to include disclaimers visible during the entire length of a pre-packaged story and would require broadcasters to air those disclosures even if only small bits of the packages are used as "B-roll," or supplemental video.

Stevens says the Kerry/Lautenberg bill infringes on broadcasters' free-speech rights by dictating how they craft news reports. Nevertheless, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) Stevens said he would consider allowing a vote on the Lautenberg/Kerry measure in late July "if there is a need."

The FCC is still reviewing public and industry comments from a separate inquiry it is conducting VNR disclosures. Stevens says he wiill wait to see what the FCC finds before moving forward.

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