Democratic Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and Frank Lautenberg (N.J.) have introduced their bill requiring visible disclaimers on all government-produced prepackaged video-news releases.
The bill, christened the Truth in Broadcasting Act, will get a hearing in the Senate Commerce committee in early May.
The bill requires "all pre-packaged news stories produced by Executive Branch agencies to contain a continuously visible disclaimer stating "Produced By the U.S. Government," when they air on domestic media outlets.
Currently, FCC rules require broadcasters to identify outside material if it is of a political or controversial nature, but there is no explicit requirement to carry the disclaimer throughout the piece.
This bill tries to be "gentle on the broadcasters," said a Kerry staffer, putting the onus on the government agency to include the continuous disclaimer, and the onus on the broadcaster not to take it off.
Broadcasters would not be liable if the government agency failed to include the disclaimer, beyond existing FCC requirements on identifying controversial or political matter supplied by outside sources.The Senators are looking to resolve a dispute between the Government Accountability Office and the Justice Department. GAO has said unidentified packaged VNR's violate "anti-propaganda" rules, while Justice says they do not so long as they are fact-based. The bill would effectively codify GAO's argument and trump the administration position.
"I am really looking forward to the hearing on our bill, "said Kerry Thursday. "The American people deserve to know that they're not just watching the administration's spin on their local newscasts -- they're paying for it, too.
"It's one thing to watch Jon Stewart on television. It's another to imitate him with Americans' hard-earned tax dollars. In a time of record-budget deficits, we need to address this abuse of the public trust and waste of money."
President George W. Bush has warned his agencies to review their VNR policies, but has also sided with the Justice opinion on undisclosed VNR's, saying that if broadcasters have a problem with them, they could identify them.
The bill would not apply to foreign broadcasts, since the U.S. government has no prohibition on exporting propaganda.
Interestingly, the bill's sponsors go out of their way to emphasize that the disclaimer does not apply to news stories from government supported news operations like PBS and NPR, as well as government-chronicler CSPAN.
That was apparently in response to some suggestions by Republicans that the bill could apply to any news operation taking government funds, including those three (though C-SPAN is actually industry-funded).An amendment to an appropriations bill, introduced by Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), would also codify the GAO position on disclaimers. The amendment passed unanimously in the Senate, suggesting the Kerry/Lautenberg bill has a good chance of becoming law.