If you watched the news in Baton Rouge on January 23, 2004, you might have seen a report on WBRZ-TV about the new Medicare law. It was a sunny story, featuring reassuring comments from Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and Medicare chief Leslie Norwalk. And it was a fake.
The "reporter," Karen Ryan, was in fact the head of a public relations firm called Karen Ryan Group Communications. The report and others like it were funded and distributed by the federal government, and they were run as ordinary newscasts on stations from Fresno to Tuscaloosa. These facts were uncovered in February by the General Accounting Office, which also announced that the reports contained "notable omissions and other weaknesses." Pundits and Democratic politicians were quick to accuse the White House of conducting, in the words of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a "covert attempt to manipulate the press."
The Republican response was that such "video news releases" are hardly new, and that the Clinton administration itself put out 26 of them, including one on Medicare. (Within the GOP, Bill Clinton apparently is considered a benchmark for honesty and sound government policy.)
But the deeper scandal here isn't the government's production of propaganda. It's the media's willingness to distribute it. According to Zachary Roth of The Campaign Desk, a weblog affiliated with the Columbia Journalism Review, "literally hundreds of stations have run—as news—items 'reported' by Ryan, pushing everything from Excedrin to 'a new ear infection treatment called Ciprodex.'" And whether or not Ryan continues to pose as a journalist, it's almost certain that others like her will. The question is whether stations will continue to put their puff pieces on the air.