Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged
by David Barstow and Robin Stern
New York Times, March 13, 2005
It is the kind of TV news coverage every
"Thank you, Bush. Thank you, U.S.A.,"
a jubilant Iraqi-American told a camera crew in Kansas City for
a segment about reaction to the fall of Baghdad. A second report
told of "another success" in the Bush administration's
"drive to strengthen aviation security"; the reporter
called it "one of the most remarkable campaigns in aviation
history." A third segment, broadcast in January, described
the administration's determination to open markets for American
To a viewer, each report looked like
any other 90-second segment on the local news. In fact, the federal
government produced all three. The report from Kansas City was
made by the State Department. The "reporter" covering
airport safety was actually a public relations professional working
under a false name for the Transportation Security Administration.
The farming segment was done by the Agriculture Department's office
Under the Bush administration, the federal
government has aggressively used a well-established tool of public
relations: the prepackaged, ready-to-serve news report that major
corporations have long distributed to TV stations to pitch everything
from headache remedies to auto insurance. In all, at least 20
federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census
Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news
segments in the past four years, records and interviews show.
Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the
country without any acknowledgement of the government's role in
This winter, Washington has been roiled
by revelations that a handful of columnists wrote in support of
administration policies without disclosing they had accepted payments
from the government. But the administration's efforts to generate
positive news coverage have been considerably more pervasive than
previously known. At the same time, records and interviews suggest
widespread complicity or negligence by television stations, given
industry ethics standards that discourage the broadcast of prepackaged
news segments from any outside group without revealing the source.
Federal agencies are forthright with broadcasters
about the origin of the news segments they distribute. The reports
themselves, though, are designed to fit seamlessly into the typical
local news broadcast. In most cases, the "reporters"
are careful not to state in the segment that they work for the
government. Their reports generally avoid overt ideological appeals.
Instead, the government's news-making apparatus has produced a
quiet drumbeat of broadcasts describing a vigilant and compassionate
Some reports were produced to support
the administration's most cherished policy objectives, like regime
change in Iraq or Medicare reform. Others focused on less prominent
matters, like the administration's efforts to offer free after-school
tutoring, its campaign to curb childhood obesity, its initiatives
to preserve forests and wetlands, its plans to fight computer
viruses, even its attempts to fight holiday drunken driving. They
often feature "interviews" with senior administration
officials in which questions are scripted and answers rehearsed.
Critics, though, are excluded, as are any hints of mismanagement,
waste or controversy.
Some of the segments were broadcast in
some of nation's largest television markets, including New York,
Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta.
An examination of government-produced
news reports offers a look inside a world where the traditional
lines between public relations and journalism have become tangled,
where local anchors introduce prepackaged segments with "suggested"
lead-ins written by public relations experts. It is a world where
government-produced reports disappear into a maze of satellite
transmissions, Web portals, syndicated news programs and network
feeds, only to emerge cleansed on the other side as "independent"
It is also a world where all participants
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