One Step Forward (But Two Back) in the Fight Against Fake News

"Myself and others felt violated by the first bill," said Doug Simon, the founder, president and CEO of D S Simon Productions, a major producer of the faux television news reports known as video news releases (VNRs).

Doug (Pee Wee) SimonSimon was referring to the Truth in Broadcasting Act (S 967). In its original incarnation, this bill would have required a "conspicuous" disclosure to accompany any government-produced or -funded prepackaged VNR or the radio equivalent, an audio news release (ANR).

For VNRs, the Act rightly mandated "continuous" on-screen notification of the material's source, such as the words "Produced by the U.S. Government." Moreover, the Act made it illegal to remove the disclosure.

That Act was considered by the Senate Commerce Committee on October 20. What the committee passed, however, was significantly different. Even the name had changed, to the "Prepackaged News Story Announcement Act."

And now, Doug Simon likes it.

"Clearly when they initially brought the legislation, they didn't have a full understanding of our industry," Simon told O'Dwyer's PR Daily. Broadcasting & Cable reported that he was "pleased" by the changes.

Barbara Cochran, the president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, had joined Simon in testifying against the original Act, back in May. Considering the revised measure, she remarked, "Our arguments seemed to be persuasive."

What changes were made and why do they have "industry officials who have resisted the labeling" now "hailing the bill as a victory," as TV Week wrote?

First, the revised Act drops the continuous on-screen notification requirement for VNRs. Second, it calls for "clear notification within the text or audio of the prepackaged news story," without specifying the minimum requirements for audience disclosure. Most troubling, it allows that disclosure to be removed altogether, following rules that the Act requires the Federal Communications Commission to develop.

According to TV Week, Barbara Cochran summarized the effect of these changes as: "The bill clears the way for TV news operations to continue using snippets of government-produced VNRs for [video footage] in their own stories, as they do currently, leaving the issue of how to identify the material up to station news personnel." The problem is that nondisclosure -- that's covert propaganda -- is currently the norm.

Much of the industry's opposition to the original Act was presented in terms of newsroom independence. "Let's not limit the rights of stations," Simon urged.

But what about the right of viewers or listeners to know the source of the material those newsrooms broadcast? Is disclosure less important when a report on something as controversial as war in Iraq or Afghanistan or reconstruction in the Gulf states post-Katrina contains 75 percent government-supplied footage? What about if it's 50 percent?

Stop Government PropagandaThere's one more potential problem, and it could be a big one. The TV Week story claimed, "The approved bill also makes clear that the labeling requirements apply only when broadcasters and cable TV operators opt to air 'prepackaged news stories' in their entirety."

Presumably, they're referring to the Act's definition of a "prepackaged news story" as a "complete, ready-to-use audio or video news segment" (emphasis added). That's the same language as in the original measure. But whether that means there are absolutely no disclosure requirements if anything less than a full VNR or ANR package is broadcast is unclear, at least to me.

If TV Week's right, though, the revised Act has no teeth, nails or protection for news audiences. For resource-strapped newsrooms, avoiding admitting that the report on the government you just broadcast actually came from the government would be as simple as shaving off a single sound bite.

But even with all these caveats, the fact that the revised Act did make it out of the Senate Commerce Committee is a step, however small, in the right direction. The legislative process is far from over, and the Act's language can be strengthened as easily as it was weakened -- if concerned citizens get involved.

According to observers of the committee meeting, the Act's main sponsors, Senators Lautenberg and Kerry, "tried to make it much stronger," but did not have the support of their colleagues. That can change if enough U.S. residents call or write their two Senators and Representative, to demand clear, conspicuous disclosure accompanying all video or audio footage coming from the government. In the case of VNRs, that must be a continuous, on-screen notification. For ANRs, that must be an announcement, prior to and/or following the provided audio.

The fight is far from over -- in fact, it just got more important. Get active and stay tuned.