Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that local news stations had aired, as news, a video news release (VNR) produced by the Bush administration that promoted the Medicare drug benefit. The video was narrated by a PR executive posing as a journalist, who signed off with the words, “I’m Karen Ryan reporting from Washington.” Campaign Desk picked up on the Times’ scoop: We revealed CNN’s role in the dissemination of the VNRs, and discovered that Ryan herself had starred in numerous similar productions, pitching everything from headache medicine to video games but portrayed, always, as a reporter.
This week, it came out that Ryan had made yet VNR for the Bush administration, this one on behalf of the Department of Education, touting tutoring programs offered as part of the No Child Left Behind Act. And we listed the local news stations that got suckered into running fake news this time around.
But it turns out that the No Child Left Behind VNR, presented as news, ran more widely than we had thought - it’s just that it didn’t always include Karen Ryan. A number of local stations ran the VNR as is, and added a local twist by simply having their own reporter read the script. And in an indication of just how confident the Department of Education was that news outlets would fail to adequately scrutinize the content of the VNR, we’ve also found that it included sound bites in support of the tutoring program from two figures whose appearance in the video might have raised eyebrows had anyone thought to check.
On October 1, 2003, anchor Megan Baker of News Channel 9 in Albany, NY, presented a “story” titled “Federal Funds Pay for Tutoring Programs.” The script that Baker read appears to be lifted directly from the VNR sent out by the Department of Education. Unsurprisingly, it includes not a single negative word about a Bush administration initiative — No Child Left Behind — whose implementation has been controversial enough to become a campaign issue. And four other local stations - WXIA-TV Atlanta, WPVI-TV Philadelphia, KPRC-TV Houston, and WXYZ-TV Detroit, appear to have done the same thing or something close to it.
WXIA-Atlanta reporter Donna Lowry narrated a segment on the tutoring program in September of last year, based heavily on the Department of Education VNR. Lowry took nearly two minutes of material from the VNR. She told Campaign Desk that she customized the report with an opening and closing to localize the segment for Atlanta, but the visual component consisted entirely of clips lifted directly from the VNR.
Lowry said the VNR’s timing and subject matter (a registration deadline for students in need) was a “special case” resulting in her using “more [of the VNR] than I’ve ever used.” She’s aware, she said, that people featured in VNRs are often chosen specifically for their point of view, but admitted that she never checks out them out, saying she doesn’t have the resources.
Lowry added that her discussion with Campaign Desk will “make her think a whole lot more about” her use of VNRs. She also made it clear that WXIA has a policy against using VNRs in their entirety.
Judging from Lexis-Nexis transcripts — which list the people quoted in the story and the gist of their comments, but do not provide the complete text — the segments run by the other three stations consisted, like the News Channel 9 story, of nothing more than a local reporter parroting the VNR.
WPVI today released a statement to Campaign Desk saying: “It would be against WPVI policy to run EPK’s [Electronic Press Kits] as news packages. If such a package did indeed air, it would be an error and we will look into it.”
But it stretches the bounds of credulity to imagine that the station could have received the VNR, then had its reporter, Rick Williams, read the transcript in his voice, then had a news director sign off on the segment, and then aired it, all without ever realizing that the “story” was in fact promotional material packaged by the government.
Neither KPRC nor WXYZ returned our calls requesting comment.
As we reported back in March, the stations that ran the Medicare VNR told Campaign Desk that they did so unknowingly, and all said they had strict policies against running unedited VNRs as news segments. Most attributed the error to hurried producers, looking to fill airtime and dispensing with the usual checks and balances. Their sin, in other words, appeared to be one of carelessness (or perhaps laziness) but not of willful deception.