March 14 --Federal investigators are scrutinizing
television segments in which the Bush administration
paid people to pose as journalists praising the
benefits of the new Medicare law, which would
be offered to help elderly Americans with the
costs of their prescription medicines.
videos are intended for use in local television
news programs. Several include pictures of President
Bush receiving a standing ovation from a crowd
cheering as he signed the Medicare law on Dec.
materials were produced by the Department of Health
and Human Services, which called them video news
releases, but the source is not identified. Two
videos end with the voice of a woman who says,
"In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting."
the production company, Home Front Communications,
said it had hired her to read a script prepared
by the government.
video, intended for Hispanic audiences, shows
a Bush administration official being interviewed
in Spanish by a man who identifies himself as
a reporter named Alberto Garcia.
segment shows a pharmacist talking to an elderly
customer. The pharmacist says the new law "helps
you better afford your medications," and the customer
says, "It sounds like a good idea." Indeed, the
pharmacist says, "A very good idea."
government also prepared scripts that can be used
by news anchors introducing what the administration
describes as a made-for-television "story package."
one script, the administration suggests that anchors
use this language: "In December, President Bush
signed into law the first-ever prescription drug
benefit for people with Medicare. Since then,
there have been a lot of questions about how the
law will help older Americans and people with
disabilities. Reporter Karen Ryan helps sort through
"reporter" then explains the benefits of the new
from the General Accounting Office, an investigative
arm of Congress, discovered the materials last
month when they were looking into the use of federal
money to pay for certain fliers and advertisements
that publicize the Medicare law.
a report to Congress last week, the lawyers said
those fliers and advertisements were legal, despite
"notable omissions and other weaknesses." Administration
officials said the television news segments were
also a legal, effective way to educate beneficiaries.
L. Kepplinger, deputy general counsel of the accounting
office, said, "We are actively considering some
follow-up work related to the materials we received
from the Department of Health and Human Services."
question is whether the government might mislead
viewers by concealing the source of the Medicare
videos, which have been broadcast by stations
in Oklahoma, Louisiana and other states.
law prohibits the use of federal money for "publicity
or propaganda purposes" not authorized by Congress.
In the past, the General Accounting Office has
found that federal agencies violated this restriction
when they disseminated editorials and newspaper
articles written by the government or its contractors
without identifying the source.
W. Keane, a spokesman for the Department of Health
and Human Services, said there was nothing nefarious
about the television materials, which he said
had been distributed to stations nationwide. Under
federal law, he said, the government is required
to inform beneficiaries about changes in Medicare.
use of video news releases is a common, routine
practice in government and the private sector,"
Mr. Keane said. "Anyone who has questions about
this practice needs to do some research on modern
public information tools."
Democrats disagreed. "These materials are even
more disturbing than the Medicare flier and advertisements,"
said Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of
New Jersey. "The distribution of these videos
is a covert attempt to manipulate the press."
Lautenberg, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat
of Massachusetts, and seven other members of Congress
requested the original review by the accounting
the videos and advertisements, the government
urges beneficiaries to call a toll-free telephone
number, 1-800-MEDICARE. People who call that number
can obtain recorded information about prescription
drug benefits if they recite the words "Medicare
from the Medicare agency show why the administration
is eager to advertise the benefits of the new
law, on radio and television, in newspapers and
on the Internet.
consumer research has shown that beneficiaries
are confused about the Medicare Modernization
Act and uncertain about what it means for them,"
says one document from the Centers for Medicare
and Medicaid Services.
documents suggest the scope of the publicity campaign:
$12.6 million for advertising this winter, $18.5
million to publicize drug discount cards this
spring, about $18.5 million this summer, $30 million
for a year of beneficiary education starting this
fall and $44 million starting in the fall of 2005.
news releases" have been used for more than a
decade. Pharmaceutical companies have done particularly
well with them, producing news-style health features
about the afflictions their drugs are meant to
videos became more prominent in the late 1980's,
as more and more television stations cut news-gathering
budgets and were glad to have packaged news bits
to call their own, even if they were prepared
by corporations seeking to sell products.
such, the videos have drawn criticism from some
news media ethicists, who consider them to be
at odds with journalism's mission to verify independently
the claims of corporations and governments.
agencies have also produced such videos for years,
often on subjects like teenage smoking and the
dangers of using steroids. But the Medicare materials
wander into more controversial territory.
Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned
Journalists, expressed disbelief that any television
stations would present the Medicare videos as
real news segments, considering the current debate
about the merits of the new law.
to me are just the next thing to fraud," Mr. Kovach
said. "It's running a paid advertisement in the
heart of a news program."
Rutenberg contributed reporting for this article.
Posted: March 15, 2004