Washington Watch


Commerce Moves To Bolster VNR Labeling

The Senate Commerce Committee this week will mark up a bill to mandate disclosure on all government-generated video news releases (VNRs).

S. 967, the Truth in Broadcasting Act of 2005, was introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)—for, among others, Senators John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy—in the wake of the debate earlier this year over government-produced VNRs on health care and education.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has said that unattributed VNRs violate a prohibition on “covert propaganda,” while the Justice Department has said they aren’t covert propaganda as long as they are fact-based. The FCC does not require disclosure unless the VNR is on a political or controversial topic.

Last month, GAO reasserted its position, this time in connection with its investigation into Department of Education PR contracts. The department had found problems, but not illegality, in the contracts.

The new bill would require that the government put a label, “Produced By the U.S. Government” (the FCC could tweak the language and format as it saw fit), on all VNRs and that the label air during the entirety of the report.

The government agency producing the VNR would be obligated to include the notice, but it also would be illegal for broadcasters, satellite operators, cable operators or anybody else in the distribution chain to remove it.

The Senate bill is more restrictive than one passed in the House in July. That bill prohibits the White House and federal agencies from producing VNRs for domestic consumption unless the package includes a “clear notification” within the text or audio disclosing that the news story was prepared or funded by the government.

But the disclaimer does not have to air during the entirety of the piece.

'Nightline’: Big Apple Openings

The preparations for Nightline’s transition to a post-Ted Koppel era picked up speed last week when ABC News listed several job openings at the newsmagazine—many of them in New York. The show, long a Washington fixture, will now become a Big Apple/Inside the Beltway co-production.

The jobs posted included senior broadcast producer, director, senior futures and planning producer, production coordinator and booker. “We are hiring people in a number of positions in New York,” Nightline spokeswoman Emily Lenzner says, though declining to comment on the specific job listings. “A significant staff will remain in Washington,” she adds. A few Washington slots were posted as well.

Staffers have been told the company expects no Washington layoffs. But some staffers have also been told to think creatively about their job descriptions now that certain traditional Washington functions are being moved to New York.

All the posted jobs are currently occupied in Washington except for the top director slot, which has been filled by an assistant director du jour since George Murphy exited last May. There are also more than a dozen staffers manning the main studio in Washington, which the show will no longer use. Some are daily hires, so if their services are no longer required, they would not technically be laid off, but some are permanent employees who it would seem will have to be let go or reassigned.

In a conference call two weeks ago, Nightline executive producer James Goldston told Washington staffers that the show would start dividing production duties between Washington and New York—where Goldston is based—after Koppel’s departure. (His last broadcast will be on Nov. 22.)

Nightline will move to a multi-anchor format, with anchors in New York and Washington, and include more West Coast-oriented stories in its lineup. The Washington operation will maintain a 24/7 control room—which also contributes to Good Morning America and World News Tonight.

The main Nightline control room and studio will now be in New York, where the show’s opening will be produced as well.