By Andrew Buncombe
29 May 2006
Federal authorities are actively investigating dozens of American television stations for broadcasting items produced by the Bush administration and major corporations, and passing them off as normal news. Some of the fake news segments talked up success in the war in Iraq, or promoted the companies’ products.
Investigators from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are seeking information about stations across the country after a report produced by a campaign group detailed the extraordinary extent of the use of such items.
The report, by the non-profit group Centre for Media and Democracy, found that over a 10-month period at least 77 television stations were making use of the faux news broadcasts, known as Video News Releases (VNRs). Not one told viewers who had produced the items.
“We know we only had partial access to these VNRs and yet we found 77 stations using them,” said Diana Farsetta, one of the group’s researchers. “I would say it’s pretty extraordinary. The picture we found was much worse than we expected going into the investigation in terms of just how widely these get played and how frequently these pre-packaged segments are put on the air.”
Ms Farsetta said the public relations companies commissioned to produce these segments by corporations had become increasingly sophisticated in their techniques in order to get the VNRs broadcast. “They have got very good at mimicking what a real, independently produced television report would look like,” she said.
The FCC has declined to comment on the investigation but investigators from the commission’s enforcement unit recently approached Ms Farsetta for a copy of her group’s report.
The range of VNR is wide. Among items provided by the Bush administration to news stations was one in which an Iraqi-American in Kansas City was seen saying “Thank you Bush. Thank you USA” in response to the 2003 fall of Baghdad. The footage was actually produced by the State Department, one of 20 federal agencies that have produced and distributed such items.
Many of the corporate reports, produced by drugs manufacturers such as Pfizer, focus on health issues and promote the manufacturer’s product. One example cited by the report was a Hallowe’en segment produced by the confectionery giant Mars, which featured Snickers, M&Ms and other company brands. While the original VNR disclosed that it was produced by Mars, such information was removed when it was broadcast by the television channel – in this case a Fox-owned station in St Louis, Missouri.
Bloomberg news service said that other companies that sponsored the promotions included General Motors, the world’s largest car maker, and Intel, the biggest maker of semi-conductors. All of the companies said they included full disclosure of their involvement in the VNRs. “We in no way attempt to hide that we are providing the video,” said Chuck Mulloy, a spokesman for Intel. “In fact, we bend over backward to make this disclosure.”
The FCC was urged to act by a lobbying campaign organised by Free Press, another non-profit group that focuses on media policy. Spokesman Craig Aaron said more than 25,000 people had written to the FCC about the VNRs. “Essentially it’s corporate advertising or propaganda masquerading as news,” he said. “The public obviously expects their news reports are going to be based on real reporting and real information. If they are watching an advertisement for a company or a government policy, they need to be told.”
The controversy over the use of VNRs by television stations first erupted last spring. At the time the FCC issued a public notice warning broadcasters that they were obliged to inform viewers if items were sponsored. The maximum fine for each violation is $32,500 (£17,500).
okay, here we go again… 8/
if this gets much worse, i’ll probably do something like Pliny the Weird (a very good friend of mine) came up with the last time this was an issue, and make “FLAG BURNING KITS” with an american flag on a cocktail toothpick and a strike-anywhere match…
May 28, 2006
Some time this summer, the Congress will likely set in motion the steps needed to amend the U.S. Constitution to make it unlawful to desecrate the flag.
The amendment, which has bipartisan support, will make it against the law to burn the American flag. Unfortunately, in the process, it will trample all over the very thing the flag stands for: your personal freedom.
The Constitution, and specifically the first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights, set out the freedoms that protect every citizen and set us apart from virtually every other country in the world.
Burning, mutilating or destroying the flag is a juvenile and despicable form of protest best suited for unruly mobs in faraway dictatorships, not the streets of America.
But as wrong-headed as it is, flag desecrating shouldn’t be against the law.
The flag is a proud symbol of America. We show our respect (or should) by removing our hats when it passes in a parade. We pledge our allegiance to the United States of America while facing the flag. It has been carried into battle around the world and our troops have died beneath it.
However, we should not confuse the symbol for the substance. The flag is a symbol of the freedoms that make America great. One of our most important freedoms is the freedom to disagree with the government and our neighbors. When we make it against the law to disagree, even in a way that is offensive, we are desecrating the Constitution.
Dissent is not a sign of weakness – it is a sign of strength. Only in a country that is strong is dissenting a freedom that enjoys equal protection under the law.
Demanding everyone support a particular cause or face consequences, real or social, is contrary to the personal liberties that have made our country strong.
You are free to express your thoughts, no matter how contrary to prevailing sentiment, because the First Amendment guarantees you that right. Thanks to that same amendment, the government can’t open your mail or listen to your phone calls without a search warrant. The First Amendment also permits us to publish this newspaper without prior approval of any government authority.
The only way supporters can make burning a flag illegal is to amend the Constitution and specifically exclude that activity from First Amendment protection.
This exercise is an unfortunate example of how politicians of both parties pander to voters on issues that sound profound and patriotic, but in reality will do great harm to the very institution they profess to protect.
Ironically, the number of reported flag burning incidents declined rapidly following 9/11 and hasn’t shown any signs of rebounding – further evidence that this constitutional amendment is a solution in search of a problem or, more accurately, in search of votes.
If the backers of this travesty are successful in amending the Constitution, America will join an elite club of nations that punish flag burners: China, Cuba and Iran.
Memorial Day is a time to remember those who gave their lives in service to our country. No doubt, many veterans past and present, along with many other citizens, join us in deploring flag burning.
The only thing worse than desecrating the flag is violating the Constitution to punish offenders.
May 28, 2006
Members of Congress last week finally decided that invasion of privacy and the president’s overstepping his power are matters of grave importance.
And it took an FBI raid of the office of one of their own to get them all worked up.
As The Washington Post first reported, FBI agents obtained a warrant to search the offices of Rep. William Jefferson, a long-time New Orleans Democrat after they secretly taped him accepting $100,000, ostensibly to help a company win Internet contracts in Africa.
Never mind that this time the FBI obtained a search warrant unlike, say, the CIA or the NSA in their attempts to listen in on Americans’ private phone conversations.
Democrats and Republicans alike called on the FBI to return the documents seized from Jefferson’s office, saying along the way that it represented an extraordinary overreaching of power on the part of the executive branch.
“No person is above the law, neither the one being investigated nor those conducting the investigation,” said a letter signed by both House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “The Justice Department must immediately return the papers it unconstitutionally seized. Once that is done, Congressman Jefferson can and should fully cooperate with the Justice Department’s efforts, consistent with his constitutional rights.”
It was apparently the first time in Congress’ history that a member’s office had been raided by the Justice Department. Of course, as The Washington Post explained in an editorial, “this was no fishing expedition.”
It’s great that there is bipartisan anger at law enforcement officials executing a lawfully obtained search warrant against someone suspected of wrongdoing. That should play well here in the rest of America.
Vermonters are no strangers to outrage over invasions of privacy on the part of our congressional delegation. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has been one of the most vocal critics of the recently disclosed collection of millions of phone records by the country’s top spy agency. Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., has been one of the loudest opponents of the Patriot Act and provisions that allow government snooping into our library borrowing habits.
Heck, a former member of Congress who couldn’t disagree more with Sanders’ socialist leanings, came to the state a few weeks ago to decry the ever-encroaching nature of the current president’s administration.
“I can’t understand that while you have a president thumbing his nose at Congress and the country and expressing disdain for the Constitution that Congress just sits there and takes it,” former Rep. Bob Barr, a Republican from Georgia, said during his visit here. “How is it that one individual can take power from the people and not be held accountable?”
How is it, indeed? On the one hand, Congress seems to just sit by and do nothing more than express frustration when the executive branch is reaching its tentacles into the private lives of the people from whom it derives its powers.
But if one of their own – no matter what party or what wrongdoing is suspected – is the recipient of a little intrusion from the executive branch, well, then, something must be done.
Vermonters are proud of their government’s relative absence from our lives and about its strong protection of individual liberties. Recall that when the latest phone-records scandal broke, calls for an immediate investigation of the state’s largest telephone company were swift and bipartisan.
I suspect, however, that Vermonters and other Americans will look at Pelosi and Hastert and Jefferson with more than a little skepticism.
It’s one thing for the crew of insiders to act like they’ve somehow been wronged by what looks like, from all accounts, a perfectly lawful and reasonable search of a crime suspect’s office, a suspect whom authorities say didn’t cooperate with them for months.
It’s quite another for them to expect that we will share their outrage.
After all, they certainly don’t seem to share ours when it is our privacy that is being violated.