One Person's Propaganda Is Another's News

The General Accounting Office is investigating whether the Department of Health and Human Services' video news releases touting the new Medicare law constitute illegal "covert propaganda." Some PR pros think it's much ado about nothing: "VNRs have been around since the dawn of TV," said the CEO of Medialink. But the director of the National Association of Government Communicators warned that the VNR "Hollywood approach" could undermine public trust. Karen Ryan, the "reporter" in the Medicare spots, told the Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk she feels like "political roadkill." Ryan, a former journalist, heads her own PR firm. Karen Ryan Group Communications was hired by Home Front Communications, which was hired by Ketchum Advertising, which was hired by HHS to do the VNRs. According to Campaign Desk reporter Zachary Roth, "The real question, however, is: How did so many television stations end up running the segment? While taking ultimate responsibility for their error, many news directors pointed the finger at two other targets: the Bush administration and CNN," whose "CNN Newsource" service is a "sort of wire service for TV," but gets paid for mixing VNRs with genuine news stories. "It mixes in the client's material with legitimate, CNN-produced news stories to be used by local stations - acting as a paid 'news launderer' on behalf of the VNR producers," Roth writes.