Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), with the support of ranking member/co-chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), has committed to holding a hearing and markup on a video-news-release bill that is expected to be introduced by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).
The bill requires that "VNR's produced, distributed or otherwise paid for by the federal government clearly identify the federal government as the source of such material."
The legislation, which would require the disclaimer to run continuously during the VNR, was introduced as an amendment to a "Junk Fax Prevention" bill being considered by the Commerce Committee, but was withdrawn when Stevens agreed to take it up separately as early as next week, according to a Kerry spokesman.
On Wednesday, the FCC reminded broadcasters that they must identify the source of any programming on political or controversial topics or face fines, prison, or both. The bill would parallel that effort by also putting the onus on government agencies to disclose or run afoul of "covert propaganda" prohibitions.
The committee vote on the Kerry-Lautenberg bill will be scheduled for the next committee markup session after the May recess, but could come earlier if Kerry and Lautenberg request it, said a Stevens spokesman.
VNRs are essentially prepackaged news stories produced so that TV news programmers can air them without any additional editing. Sometimes actors have been employed to portray reporters. Producers of the releases often suggest scripts that news anchors can use a lead-ins.
Most stations use only B-roll video, rather than the packages, but following revelations in January 2004 that the Department of Health and Human Services prepared prepackaged programming segments on controversial White House Medicare policies, critics of the Bush Administration have demanded that the use of VNRs by federal agencies be eliminated.
A Government Accountability Office study in May of last year declared the Medicare VNR to be illegal "covert propaganda," a characterization the White House disputes, citing a Justice Department opinion contradicting GAO.
The bill would attempt to resolve that turf fight.--Bill McConnell contributed to this story