A Bumper Crop of Government-Produced "News": The USDA's Broadcast Media and Technology Center

"Beef trade with Japan and Canada was on the minds of producers at the annual National Cattlemen's Beef Association convention in San Antonio, Texas," a man's voice intones, as the television news segment opens with a shot of a slowly rotating sign reading "U.S. Premium Beef." The voice continues, "Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns addressed the gathering and afterward took questions from the media."

Opening shot from one of USDA reporter Bob Ellison's TV segments.The two-minute news piece examines trade issues surrounding bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as BSE or mad cow disease. Since the December 2003 discovery of a BSE-infected cow in Washington state, Japan has banned U.S. beef. In the February 10, 2005 TV segment, recently-appointed Secretary Johanns says he is "anxious to continue the effort [to lobby Japan] and reopen the border."

Beef trade between the United States and Canada has also been restricted -- by the United States, this time -- since the first BSE-infected Canadian cow was discovered in May 2003. The TV segment shows Johanns warning, with regard to U.S.-Canadian negotiations, "If we just tangle trade up in any way that isn't based upon risk analysis and science and all of the things I've talked about, then where's our protection with another country? Devastating trade is devastating to agriculture."

Johanns adds, referring to the beef industry conference attendees, "These folks that, that sat in front of me today are the most remarkable, efficient producers we've ever known on the face of the earth. And they produce and produce, and we need to figure out a way to get their product sold."

The news piece completely ignores some important, basic facts: Mad cow disease is an always-fatal neurodegenerative condition transmitted between animals -- and from animals to humans -- via the food supply. The U.S. government doesn't follow World Health Organization recommendations for avoiding animal-to-human transmission of the disease. Even with limited animal testing, four BSE cases have been confirmed among North American cattle. (Two other BSE-infected Canadian cattle were found in early 2005.) The experience of other countries, especially Britain, suggests how to successfully battle the disease.

Is this shoddy reporting? Worse -- it's "news" that's been scripted, recorded and produced by an interested party -- in this case, the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The segment, titled "Johanns Addresses Trade At NCBA Conference," is a fake television news story, or video news release (VNR), produced by the USDA's Broadcast Media & Technology Center (BMTC).

With its $2.8 million annual budget, BMTC is "one of the most effective public relations operations inside the federal government," the New York Times concluded in its March 2005 exposé on government VNRs. BMTC's website resembles a cutting-edge communications firm, advertising full-service digital production facilities and offering services to other government agencies, including video and audio conferencing, field video production, CD-ROM and Internet content for distance learning, and radio and television "news" production.

For the USDA, BMTC "produces more than 90 TV news stories a year in the form of Video News Releases" and "over 2,000 radio news stories," or audio news releases (ANRs), in addition to public service announcements. BMTC has eight TV production staff, three radio reporters, two TV reporters, and several other multimedia, support and administrative staff. The BMTC website says its ANRs cover "issues from food safety to international trade in a non partisan manner," while its VNRs cover "mission messages" in such areas as trade, biotechnology, food safety, conservation, small farms and marketing.

Mad cow disease "nothing but media hype"

Mad cow disease has been a frequent topic of these USDA reports. Over the past six months, BMTC has produced five VNRs and 29 ANRs on the issue. Like the piece described above, they tend to ignore safety concerns, instead focusing on international trade or USDA "accomplishments."

USDA Secretary Mike Johanns' confirmation hearing, as reported by BMTC.Just two of the recent mad cow disease VNRs even mention the word "safety." One is a "good news" story, announcing that the USDA "is redirecting $2 million for projects and facilities to study mad cow disease." In that piece, Secretary Johanns (often the only source quoted by BMTC) reassures viewers, "Americans today know that their food is safe, and we're making progress towards making it even safer."

The other VNR to mention the dreaded "s" word covered the hearing on Johanns' nomination as Secretary of Agriculture. (It was "a friendly Senate Agriculture Committee confirmation hearing," viewers are told, but Johanns "still had to outline his positions on some important issues.") Nearly half-way through the segment, the off-screen narrator says, "On the recent Canadian BSE cases, Johanns says he is ready to work with Congress on an issue that affects animal safety and food safety." Johanns then cryptically states, "We need to make sure that those issues have been touched. That we paid attention to them, that we're doing the, the right things in, in those areas in terms of this rule and in terms of Canada. So, I'll do that."

The ANRs are similar. One produced in April 2005 warns that delays in reopening the U.S. market to Canadian beef have resulted in "the Canadian beef industry ... growing and going elsewhere, which may hurt the U.S. cattle industry." A March 2005 radio segment features University of Maryland Extension Livestock Specialist Scott Bareo, who says, "The BSE situation in the United States has been nothing but media hype. We have a food safety system in this country second to none." In an October 2004 piece, USDA Undersecretary J.B. Penn explains why U.S. beef is safe, "without having to test all animals."

If CAFTA opponents only had a brain

Of course, BMTC covers other topics besides mad cow disease. What's recently become a hot beat for these taxpayer-funded news hounds is the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). CAFTA, which would basically extend the North American Free Trade Agreement to another six countries, was negotiated and signed by President Bush last year. A Congressional vote could occur as early as May 2005; committee hearings began in mid-April.

BMTC's interest in CAFTA dovetails nicely with the Bush administration's legislative agenda, as described by the Grand Forks Herald (North Dakota) on April 6. "Last week, Bush administration officials launched a campaign in rural America to urge farmers to convince Congress to approve the CAFTA," the paper reported.

As might be expected, BMTC's coverage of CAFTA tends to repeat Bush administration talking points. What's more notable is their faint nod to some opponents of the trade agreement, which effectively defines, limits and refutes the "other side."

Central American market scene, from a VNR on CAFTA.In a VNR released in late February, the narrator explains CAFTA "detractors say it would hurt small farmers." Secretary Johanns is then shown at a podium, saying, "We could probably line up a lot of people, aggressively supportive. And we could probably line up some people who raise questions and concerns. ... I've studied that issue very, very closely. My view of CAFTA is that it is very good for agriculture."

An early April VNR briefly notes two other sources of opposition: inscrutable members of Congress and greedy sugar barons. "CAFTA is opposed by the Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman, Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia," says the narrator. Johanns then gently questions Chambliss' opposition by stating CAFTA would result in "excellent access in many areas for ag products that are grown in his state." Sugar growers, the narrator states, oppose the agreement "because of possible increased sugar imports from CAFTA nations." But Johanns disputes their claims: "I don't see the amount of sugar coming in as having a downside impact on that industry."

These BMTC pieces seem almost designed to construct teetering anti-CAFTA straw men. No opponents are given air time, and many -- including family farm, human rights, environmental and labor organizations -- aren't even mentioned. The lack of explanation for Senator Chambliss' opposition is particularly striking. More than a week before the VNR naming Chambliss was released, he issued a statement on CAFTA. "I am very concerned," Chambliss' statement read, about CAFTA's "long-term impacts," which might "restrict options available to Congress in future farm bills."

The 13 radio ANRs produced on CAFTA in early 2005 are, if anything, even more one-sided. One proclaims CAFTA to be "part of the new world order for trade." As the piece ends, the "reporter" enthuses that CAFTA "would be very good news for America's farmers." The only CAFTA opponent mentioned in any ANR is the sugar industry. The most frequently used phrase to describe CAFTA is "level playing field."

"Fake news" on the range -- and elsewhere

Does government-funded fake news really shape public opinion? One way to measure its impact is how widely it's aired. According to the BMTC website, their VNRs are shown "on two nationally syndicated programs with targeted audiences of farmers and strong rural viewership, AgDay and U.S. Farm Report," as well as "a variety of commercial television station markets." Their ANRs are "particularly important to the many radio stations in rural areas ... that do not have a Washington correspondent." Recordings of radio features are mailed weekly to 675 radio stations; other stations download audio directly from the BMTC website.

Of course, "fake news" has its greatest effect -- and is most deceptive -- when viewers aren't aware of its source. The New York Times reported on WCIA, a CBS station in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, that airs BMTC segments so frequently they asked BMTC to "record a special sign-off," implying the VNRs were "the work of WCIA reporters."

Until mid-February 2005, the standard sign-off for all BMTC television segments was, "I'm [name] reporting" -- pause -- "for the U.S. Department of Agriculture." The pause allowed TV stations to easily remove any indication that they were allowing the USDA to report to their viewers on the USDA. As of mid-April, BMTC radio sign-offs still regularly include the word "reporting."

"Listeners and viewers are entitled to know who seeks to persuade them," the Federal Communications Commission noted, in an April 13, 2005 Public Notice on VNRs. Existing but rarely enforced federal laws and FCC rules already forbid government propaganda and set strong disclosure requirements for "political material and program matter dealing with controversial issues." (After the Public Notice was released, an FCC spokesperson admitted she was "not certain who would judge what is political or controversial.") A strong and growing consensus among government watchdog groups, journalism schools, media organizations and some reporters is that all material provided by third parties and aired by news broadcasters should be clearly identified as such to listeners or viewers.

In March 2005, several California news outlets reported on the Schwarzenegger administration's use of VNRs to tout their policies. State officials unrepentantly said they planned to make more, as VNRs are "an effective way to reach residents." They're correct, in a way. Most U.S. residents get their news from television, and government does have a duty to inform the public of its policies and actions.

Where should the line be drawn demarcating responsible media practices for governments -- and for corporations, which are responsible for the vast majority of fake news (and own much of the media)? Who should referee conflicts between government agencies' various motivations -- for example, between USDA's mission to protect the public and its mission to promote agricultural trade? Is there an acceptable solution that takes into account the severe lack of resources faced by most U.S. newsrooms today?

The status quo is unacceptable, yet questions about the solutions to these media problems remain. What's undeniable is that fake news, an issue raised by the Center for Media and Democracy more than a decade ago, is finally getting serious attention. Influential mainstream media outlets are reporting on VNRs. U.S. Senators are calling for federal investigations. In one week, forty thousand people signed a petition demanding an end to taxpayer-funded fake news. The FCC signaled its intention to study the issue and take "appropriate enforcement action." Even the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, an agency whose VNRs were found to be "covert propaganda" by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, has promised to stop using VNRs.

In the short term, USDA-produced "news" will continue to infiltrate rural airwaves, without disclosures. PR firms that produce VNRs are scrambling to do damage control and fight back against the effort to stop fake news. But as public awareness grows, so does the pressure for real news.