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.
But the stations that took the time to have their own reporters record the script of the No Child Left Behind VNR had to have been fully aware of what they were doing: knowingly deceiving their viewers about the origins of the story — not to mention committing plagiarism — by passing off as their own original reporting words actually written by a PR company hired by the Bush administration.
It gets worse. Had the news stations that ran the VNR bothered to look into its content, they might have noticed that two of the people quoted in support of the tutoring program had backgrounds deserving further attention.
Alberta Paul, identified in the VNR as the “services co-ordinator” of the tutoring programs, affirms in the video that “the after-school programs are working.” Paul seems an odd spokeswoman for the for the Department of Education to use: As the Washington Post and Washington Times reported in September 2000, she was forced to resign as head of information technology for the Prince George’s County (Md.) Board of Education in September 2000 amid allegations that she had misrepresented the credentials on her resume. Previously, Paul had been investigated for calling a subordinate a “dumb white guy.” (The results of the investigation were not publicly released.)
A little more research by the news stations would also have called into question the status of the sole parent featured in the VNR, Valerie Garland, as an unbiased source. In the video, Garland expresses frustration that her son’s high school previously lacked tutoring resources. But only two months before the first VNR-generated news story aired, President Bush, addressed students at a Washington D.C. school, promoting his school choice initiative. During the speech, Bush referred to his “emotional meeting” with Garland, noting that the “two shed a tear or two about the future.” In other words, Garland had been used previously by the Bush administration to promote a completely different aspect of its education agenda. Hardly an ordinary parent.
The day after Megan Baker’s “story” aired in Albany, it showed up on a page of the Department of Education ‘s website that showcases positive media coverage of No Child Left Behind. Thus was a self-referential loop closed: the Bush administration had produced a promotional video touting a new government program and designed to look like a complete news story; the news media had run that video as news, just as the administration had hoped; and the administration had in turn posted the story on a governmental website as evidence that the program was generating positive news coverage. Things had come full circle.
In the process, the complicit press took the process one step farther than Karen Ryan had. It’s one thing for a PR operative to pose as a reporter; it’s another for a reporter to act as a cog in the PR wheel of a government agency.