Hey, This Reporting Stuff is Easy!

The latest example of “Your Tax Dollars at Work” comes to us via the Chicago Tribune, which reports today that the U.S. Department of Agriculture “has churned out three dozen radio and television news segments since the first of the year that promote a controversial trade agreement with Central America”:

Amid an intense debate over government-funded efforts to influence news coverage, the prepackaged reports have been widely distributed to broadcast outlets across the country for easy insertion into newscasts.

This, of course, is not the first time the Bush administration has produced fake news segments that have been picked up by radio and TV outlets, and run without being identified as government propaganda. Remember Karen Ryan and Armstrong Williams?

The latest round of government PR posing as news involves efforts by the White House to overcome opposition from the politically powerful sugar industry, which opposes the Central American Free Trade Agreement because it would affect subsidies to U.S. sugar producers.

Earlier this week, two senators from sugar-producing states, Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, wrote to USDA Secretary Mike Johanns criticizing the “news reports.” They wrote:

These releases, which are produced and distributed with taxpayer dollars, are provided to 675 rural radio stations and numerous televisions stations where they are run, without disclosure of their source, as news reports. We are concerned that many listeners in rural America may believe these releases are objective news reports, rather than political statements from the USDA which are intended to advance a specific trade agenda.

A USDA spokesman defended the practice, saying the releases are identified as coming from the Agriculture Department. But, as the Tribune notes, “the taglines disclosing the USDA’s role generally are at the end of the reports, and some news stations have dropped those taglines, apparently in an effort to make the reports appear to be their own work.”

As long as there are lazy news directors who don’t see the ethical landmines of running PR releases as news, there will always be government propagandists eager to help them.

Meantime, it’s getting increasingly impossible to turn on a TV news program without wondering if you’re watching actual journalism, or just the latest fiction from one or another cabinet agency in Washington, D.C., dressed up to look like news.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.