The Times today has an article running-down the Armstrong Williams flap. Like others, they relate this incident to the earlier instances in which the same PR company — Ketchum — produced phony news segments for the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services.
One passage of the article, however, suggests that the government-funded phony news segment phenomena is not new and that, if anything, the Clinton administration did even more of it than the Bush administration.
But public relations executives said that the government distribution of prepared news segments without on-air disclosures of their origin was a bipartisan practice that predated the Bush administration.
“The Clinton administration was probably even more active than the Bush administration” in distributing news segments promoting its policies, said Laurence Moskowitz, chairman and chief executive of Medialink, a major producer of promotional news segments. After the Government Accountability Office decision last spring, he said, his firm began advising government clients to disclose each tape’s nature in its script.
This passage appears to remove the partisan dimension from the story. Yet it provides no examples of similar <$Ad$>productions under the Clinton administration.
Moreover, it appears to elide the main distinction. The GAO study which found the Bush administration productions to have been illegal rested that judgment not on the failure to disclose their source explicitly but because of the tagline “this is Karen Ryan reporting,” which ended each segment.
This, they reasoned, was not simply a failure to disclose, but a positive effort to mislead viewers into believing they were watching a news report rather than a government-produced public service announcement.
(Bush administration officials were eventually able to produce for GAO at least one example of a Clinton HHS VNR which also used the ‘reporting’ tagline.)
Another point worth noting is the source for the Times’ claim that this was done as much or even more under the Clinton administration, Laurence Moskowitz, CEO of Medialink, whose company is a major producer of these so-called VNRs.
He told the Times that it was only after the GAO’s May 2004 ruling that “his firm began advising government clients to disclose each tape’s nature in its script,” thus implying that this was a more rigorous standard that only came into application after the May 2004 GAO report.
Yet a May 24th, 2004 article in PR Week says that these disclosure requirements have long been an established standard embodied in the guidelines of the Public Relations Society of America. And indeed in that very article, Moskowitz himself is quoted as telling PR Week: “We have always subscribed to attribution and full disclosure in the script. The GAO ruling says that if you produce a video that is fully disclosed and appropriately attributed, you are within the proper use of federal money and, therefore, not in violation (emphasis added).”