martha rosler on Wed, 16 Mar 2005 06:59:17 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> News or Public Relations? For Bush It's a Blur

>The Bush administration has produced look-alike news propaganda clips and
>then persuaded television stations across the country to air them
>uncritically and, often, uncut. As many as 20 government departments have
>produced fake news which stations broadcast as though they had produced the
>segments themselves


if you  liked the independent story, here 's the local version, from the
day before, where the headline is as in my message subject line.  The
online version is more sedately titled.

March 13, 2005

Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged TV News

It is the kind of TV news coverage every president covets.

"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 farmers.

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 of communications.

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 their production.

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 administration.

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" journalism.

It is also a world where all participants benefit.

Local affiliates are spared the expense of digging up original 
material. Public relations firms secure government contracts worth 
millions of dollars. The major networks, which help distribute the 
releases, collect fees from the government agencies that produce 
segments and the affiliates that show them. The administration, 
meanwhile, gets out an unfiltered message, delivered in the guise of 
traditional reporting.

The practice, which also occurred in the Clinton administration, is 
continuing despite President Bush's recent call for a clearer 
demarcation between journalism and government publicity efforts. 
"There needs to be a nice independent relationship between the White 
House and the press," Mr. Bush told reporters in January, explaining 
why his administration would no longer pay pundits to support his 

In interviews, though, press officers for several federal agencies 
said the president's prohibition did not apply to government-made 
television news segments, also known as video news releases. They 
described the segments as factual, politically neutral and useful to 
viewers. They insisted that there was no similarity to the case of 
Armstrong Williams, a conservative columnist who promoted the 
administration's chief education initiative, the No Child Left Behind 
Act, without disclosing $240,000 in payments from the Education 

What is more, these officials argued, it is the responsibility of 
television news directors to inform viewers that a segment about the 
government was in fact written by the government. "Talk to the 
television stations that ran it without attribution," said William A. 
Pierce, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services. 
"This is not our problem. We can't be held responsible for their 

Yet in three separate opinions in the past year, the Government 
Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress that studies 
the federal government and its expenditures, has held that 
government-made news segments may constitute improper "covert 
propaganda" even if their origin is made clear to the television 
stations. The point, the office said, is whether viewers know the 
origin. Last month, in its most recent finding, the G.A.O. said 
federal agencies may not produce prepackaged news reports "that 
conceal or do not clearly identify for the television viewing 
audience that the agency was the source of those materials."

It is not certain, though, whether the office's pronouncements will 
have much practical effect. Although a few federal agencies have 
stopped making television news segments, others continue. And on 
Friday, the Justice Department and the Office of Management and 
Budget circulated a memorandum instructing all executive branch 
agencies to ignore the G.A.O. findings. The memorandum said the 
G.A.O. failed to distinguish between covert propaganda and "purely 
informational" news segments made by the government. Such 
informational segments are legal, the memorandum said, whether or not 
an agency's role in producing them is disclosed to viewers.

Even if agencies do disclose their role, those efforts can easily be 
undone in a broadcaster's editing room. Some news organizations, for 
example, simply identify the government's "reporter" as one of their 
own and then edit out any phrase suggesting the segment was not of 
their making.

So in a recent segment produced by the Agriculture Department, the 
agency's narrator ended the report by saying "In Princess Anne, 
Maryland, I'm Pat O'Leary reporting for the U.S. Department of 
Agriculture." Yet AgDay, a syndicated farm news program that is shown 
on some 160 stations, simply introduced the segment as being by 
"AgDay's Pat O'Leary." The final sentence was then trimmed to "In 
Princess Anne, Maryland, I'm Pat O'Leary reporting."

Brian Conrady, executive producer of AgDay, defended the changes. "We 
can clip 'Department of Agriculture' at our choosing," he said. "The 
material we get from the U.S.D.A., if we choose to air it and how we 
choose to air it is our choice."

Spreading the Word: Government Efforts and One Woman's Role

Karen Ryan cringes at the phrase "covert propaganda." These are words 
for dictators and spies, and yet they have attached themselves to her 
like a pair of handcuffs.

Not long ago, Ms. Ryan was a much sought-after "reporter" for news 
segments produced by the federal government. A journalist at ABC and 
PBS who became a public relations consultant, Ms. Ryan worked on 
about a dozen reports for seven federal agencies in 2003 and early 
2004. Her segments for the Department of Health and Human Services 
and the Office of National Drug Control Policy were a subject of the 
accountability office's recent inquiries.

The G.A.O. concluded that the two agencies "designed and executed" 
their segments "to be indistinguishable from news stories produced by 
private sector television news organizations." A significant part of 
that execution, the office found, was Ms. Ryan's expert narration, 
including her typical sign-off - "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan 
reporting" - delivered in a tone and cadence familiar to television 
reporters everywhere.

Last March, when The New York Times first described her role in a 
segment about new prescription drug benefits for Medicare patients, 
reaction was harsh. In Cleveland, The Plain Dealer ran an editorial 
under the headline "Karen Ryan, You're a Phony," and she was the 
object of late-night jokes by Jon Stewart and received hate mail.

"I'm like the Marlboro man," she said in a recent interview.

In fact, Ms. Ryan was a bit player who made less than $5,000 for her 
work on government reports. She was also playing an accepted role in 
a lucrative art form, the video news release. "I just don't feel I 
did anything wrong," she said. "I just did what everyone else in the 
industry was doing."

It is a sizable industry. One of its largest players, Medialink 
Worldwide Inc., has about 200 employees, with offices in New York and 
London. It produces and distributes about 1,000 video news releases a 
year, most commissioned by major corporations. The Public Relations 
Society of America even gives an award, the Bronze Anvil, for the 
year's best video news release.

Several major television networks play crucial intermediary roles in 
the business. Fox, for example, has an arrangement with Medialink to 
distribute video news releases to 130 affiliates through its video 
feed service, Fox News Edge. CNN distributes releases to 750 stations 
in the United States and Canada through a similar feed service, CNN 
Newsource. Associated Press Television News does the same thing 
worldwide with its Global Video Wire.

"We look at them and determine whether we want them to be on the 
feed," David M. Winstrom, director of Fox News Edge, said of video 
news releases. "If I got one that said tobacco cures cancer or 
something like that, I would kill it."

In essence, video news releases seek to exploit a growing 
vulnerability of television news: Even as news staffs at the major 
networks are shrinking, many local stations are expanding their hours 
of news coverage without adding reporters.

"No TV news organization has the resources in labor, time or funds to 
cover every worthy story," one video news release company, TVA 
Productions, said in a sales pitch to potential clients, adding that 
"90 percent of TV newsrooms now rely on video news releases."

Federal agencies have been commissioning video news releases since at 
least the first Clinton administration. An increasing number of state 
agencies are producing television news reports, too; the Texas Parks 
and Wildlife Department alone has produced some 500 video news 
releases since 1993.

Under the Bush administration, federal agencies appear to be 
producing more releases, and on a broader array of topics.

A definitive accounting is nearly impossible. There is no 
comprehensive archive of local television news reports, as there is 
in print journalism, so there is no easy way to determine what has 
been broadcast, and when and where.

Still, several large agencies, including the Defense Department, the 
State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, 
acknowledge expanded efforts to produce news segments. Many members 
of Mr. Bush's first-term cabinet appeared in such segments.

A recent study by Congressional Democrats offers another rough 
indicator: the Bush administration spent $254 million in its first 
term on public relations contracts, nearly double what the last 
Clinton administration spent.

Karen Ryan was part of this push - a "paid shill for the Bush 
administration," as she self-mockingly puts it. It is, she 
acknowledges, an uncomfortable title.

Ms. Ryan, 48, describes herself as not especially political, and 
certainly no Bush die-hard. She had hoped for a long career in 
journalism. But over time, she said, she grew dismayed by what she 
saw as the decline of television news - too many cut corners, too 
many ratings stunts.

In the end, she said, the jump to video news releases from journalism 
was not as far as one might expect. "It's almost the same thing," she 

There are differences, though. When she went to interview Tommy G. 
Thompson, then the health and human services secretary, about the new 
Medicare drug benefit, it was not the usual reporter-source exchange. 
First, she said, he already knew the questions, and she was there 
mostly to help him give better, snappier answers. And second, she 
said, everyone involved is aware of a segment's potential political 

Her Medicare report, for example, was distributed in January 2004, 
not long before Mr. Bush hit the campaign trail and cited the drug 
benefit as one of his major accomplishments.

The script suggested that local anchors lead into the report with 
this line: "In December, President Bush signed into law the 
first-ever prescription drug benefit for people with Medicare." In 
the segment, Mr. Bush is shown signing the legislation as Ms. Ryan 
describes the new benefits and reports that "all people with Medicare 
will be able to get coverage that will lower their prescription drug 

The segment made no mention of the many critics who decry the law as 
an expensive gift to the pharmaceutical industry. The G.A.O. found 
that the segment was "not strictly factual," that it contained 
"notable omissions" and that it amounted to "a favorable report" 
about a controversial program.

And yet this news segment, like several others narrated by Ms. Ryan, 
reached an audience of millions. According to the accountability 
office, at least 40 stations ran some part of the Medicare report. 
Video news releases distributed by the Office of National Drug 
Control Policy, including one narrated by Ms. Ryan, were shown on 300 
stations and reached 22 million households. According to Video 
Monitoring Services of America, a company that tracks news programs 
in major cities, Ms. Ryan's segments on behalf of the government were 
broadcast a total of at least 64 times in the 40 largest television 

Even these measures, though, do not fully capture the reach of her 
work. Consider the case of News 10 Now, a cable station in Syracuse 
owned by Time Warner. In February 2004, days after the government 
distributed its Medicare segment, News 10 Now broadcast a virtually 
identical report, including the suggested anchor lead-in. The News 10 
Now segment, however, was not narrated by Ms. Ryan. Instead, the 
station edited out the original narration and had one of its 
reporters repeat the script almost word for word.

The station's news director, Sean McNamara, wrote in an e-mail 
message, "Our policy on provided video is to clearly identify the 
source of that video." In the case of the Medicare report, he said, 
the station believed it was produced and distributed by a major 
network and did not know that it had originally come from the 

Ms. Ryan said she was surprised by the number of stations willing to 
run her government segments without any editing or acknowledgement of 
origin. As proud as she says she is of her work, she did not 
hesitate, even for a second, when asked if she would have broadcast 
one of her government reports if she were a local news director.

"Absolutely not."

Little Oversight: TV's Code of Ethics, With Uncertain Weight

"Clearly disclose the origin of information and label all material 
provided by outsiders."

Those words are from the code of ethics of the Radio-Television News 
Directors Association, the main professional society for broadcast 
news directors in the United States. Some stations go further, all 
but forbidding the use of any outside material, especially entire 
reports. And spurred by embarrassing publicity last year about Karen 
Ryan, the news directors association is close to proposing a stricter 
rule, said its executive director, Barbara Cochran.

Whether a stricter ethics code will have much effect is unclear; it 
is not hard to find broadcasters who are not adhering to the existing 
code, and the association has no enforcement powers.

The Federal Communications Commission does, but it has never 
disciplined a station for showing government-made news segments 
without disclosing their origin, a spokesman said.

Could it? Several lawyers experienced with F.C.C. rules say yes. They 
point to a 2000 decision by the agency, which stated, "Listeners and 
viewers are entitled to know by whom they are being persuaded."

In interviews, more than a dozen station news directors endorsed this 
view without hesitation. Several expressed disdain for the 
prepackaged segments they received daily from government agencies, 
corporations and special interest groups who wanted to use their 
airtime and credibility to sell or influence.

But when told that their stations showed government-made reports 
without attribution, most reacted with indignation. Their stations, 
they insisted, would never allow their news programs to be co-opted 
by segments fed from any outside party, let alone the government.

"They're inherently one-sided, and they don't offer the possibility 
for follow-up questions - or any questions at all," said Kathy 
Lehmann Francis, until recently the news director at WDRB, the Fox 
affiliate in Louisville, Ky.

Yet records from Video Monitoring Services of America indicate that 
WDRB has broadcast at least seven Karen Ryan segments, including one 
for the government, without disclosing their origin to viewers.

Mike Stutz, news director at KGTV, the ABC affiliate in San Diego, 
was equally opposed to putting government news segments on the air.

"It amounts to propaganda, doesn't it?" he said.

Again, though, records from Video Monitoring Services of America show 
that from 2001 to 2004 KGTV ran at least one government-made segment 
featuring Ms. Ryan, 5 others featuring her work on behalf of 
corporations, and 19 produced by corporations and other outside 
organizations. It does not appear that KGTV viewers were told the 
origin of these 25 segments.

"I thought we were pretty solid," Mr. Stutz said, adding that they 
intend to take more precautions.

Confronted with such evidence, most news directors were at a loss to 
explain how the segments made it on the air. Some said they were 
unable to find archive tapes that would help answer the question. 
Others promised to look into it, then stopped returning telephone 
messages. A few removed the segments from their Web sites, promised 
greater vigilance in the future or pleaded ignorance.

Afghanistan to Memphis: An Agency's Report Ends Up on the Air

On Sept. 11, 2002, WHBQ, the Fox affiliate in Memphis, marked the 
anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with an uplifting report on how 
assistance from the United States was helping to liberate the women 
of Afghanistan.

Tish Clark, a reporter for WHBQ, described how Afghan women, once 
barred from schools and jobs, were at last emerging from their 
burkas, taking up jobs as seamstresses and bakers, sending daughters 
off to new schools, receiving decent medical care for the first time 
and even participating in a fledgling democracy. Her segment included 
an interview with an Afghan teacher who recounted how the Taliban 
only allowed boys to attend school. An Afghan doctor described how 
the Taliban refused to let male physicians treat women.

In short, Ms. Clark's report seemed to corroborate, however modestly, 
a central argument of the Bush foreign policy, that forceful American 
intervention abroad was spreading freedom, improving lives and 
winning friends.

What the people of Memphis were not told, though, was that the 
interviews used by WHBQ were actually conducted by State Department 
contractors. The contractors also selected the quotes used from those 
interviews and shot the video that went with the narration. They also 
wrote the narration, much of which Ms. Clark repeated with only minor 

As it happens, the viewers of WHBQ were not the only ones in the dark.

Ms. Clark, now Tish Clark Dunning, said in an interview that she, 
too, had no idea the report originated at the State Department. "If 
that's true, I'm very shocked that anyone would false report on 
anything like that," she said.

How a television reporter in Memphis unwittingly came to narrate a 
segment by the State Department reveals much about the extent to 
which government-produced news accounts have seeped into the broader 
new media landscape.

The explanation begins inside the White House, where the president's 
communications advisers devised a strategy after Sept. 11, 2001, to 
encourage supportive news coverage of the fight against terrorism. 
The idea, they explained to reporters at the time, was to counter 
charges of American imperialism by generating accounts that 
emphasized American efforts to liberate and rebuild Afghanistan and 

An important instrument of this strategy was the Office of 
Broadcasting Services, a State Department unit of 30 or so editors 
and technicians whose typical duties include distributing video from 
news conferences. But in early 2002, with close editorial direction 
from the White House, the unit began producing narrated feature 
reports, many of them promoting American achievements in Afghanistan 
and Iraq and reinforcing the administration's rationales for the 
invasions. These reports were then widely distributed in the United 
States and around the world for use by local television stations. In 
all, the State Department has produced 59 such segments.

United States law contains provisions intended to prevent the 
domestic dissemination of government propaganda. The 1948 Smith-Mundt 
Act, for example, allows Voice of America to broadcast pro-government 
news to foreign audiences, but not at home. Yet State Department 
officials said that law does not apply to the Office of Broadcasting 
Services. In any event, said Richard A. Boucher, a State Department 
spokesman: "Our goal is to put out facts and the truth. We're not a 
propaganda agency."

Even so, as a senior department official, Patricia Harrison, told 
Congress last year, the Bush administration has come to regard such 
"good news" segments as "powerful strategic tools" for influencing 
public opinion. And a review of the department's segments reveals a 
body of work in sync with the political objectives set forth by the 
White House communications team after 9/11.

In June 2003, for example, the unit produced a segment that depicted 
American efforts to distribute food and water to the people of 
southern Iraq. "After living for decades in fear, they are now 
receiving assistance - and building trust - with their coalition 
liberators," the unidentified narrator concluded.

Several segments focused on the liberation of Afghan women, which a 
White House memo from January 2003 singled out as a "prime example" 
of how "White House-led efforts could facilitate strategic, proactive 
communications in the war on terror."

Tracking precisely how a "good news" report on Afghanistan could have 
migrated to Memphis from the State Department is far from easy. The 
State Department typically distributes its segments via satellite to 
international news organizations like Reuters and Associated Press 
Television News, which in turn distribute them to the major United 
States networks, which then transmit them to local affiliates.

"Once these products leave our hands, we have no control," Robert A. 
Tappan, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for public 
affairs, said in an interview. The department, he said, never 
intended its segments to be shown unedited and without attribution by 
local news programs. "We do our utmost to identify them as State 
Department-produced products."

Representatives for the networks insist that government-produced 
reports are clearly labeled when they are distributed to affiliates. 
Yet with segments bouncing from satellite to satellite, passing from 
one news organization to another, it is easy to see the potential for 
confusion. Indeed, in response to questions from The Times, 
Associated Press Television News acknowledged that they might have 
distributed at least one segment about Afghanistan to the major 
United States networks without identifying it as the product of the 
State Department. A spokesman said it could have "slipped through our 
net because of a sourcing error."

Kenneth W. Jobe, vice president for news at WHBQ in Memphis, said he 
could not explain how his station came to broadcast the State 
Department's segment on Afghan women. "It's the same piece, there's 
no mistaking it," he said in an interview, insisting that it would 
not happen again.

Mr. Jobe, who was not with WHBQ in 2002, said the station's script 
for the segment has no notes explaining its origin. But Tish Clark 
Dunning said it was her impression at the time that the Afghan 
segment was her station's version of one done first by network 
correspondents at either Fox News or CNN. It is not unusual, she 
said, for a local station to take network reports and then give them 
a hometown look.

"I didn't actually go to Afghanistan," she said. "I took that story 
and reworked it. I had to do some research on my own. I remember 
looking on the Internet and finding out how it all started as far as 
women covering their faces and everything."

At the State Department, Mr. Tappan said the broadcasting office is 
moving away from producing narrated feature segments. Instead, the 
department is increasingly supplying only the ingredients for reports 
- sound bites and raw video. Since the shift, he said, even more 
State Department material is making its way into news broadcasts.

Meeting a Need: Rising Budget Pressures, Ready-to-Run Segments

WCIA is a small station with a big job in central Illinois.

Each weekday, WCIA's news department produces a three-hour morning 
program, a noon broadcast and three evening programs. There are plans 
to add a 9 p.m. broadcast. The staff, though, has been cut to 37 from 
39. "We are doing more with the same," said Jim P. Gee, the news 

Farming is crucial in Mr. Gee's market, yet with so many demands, he 
said, "it is hard for us to justify having a reporter just focusing 
on agriculture."

To fill the gap, WCIA turned to the Agriculture Department, which has 
assembled one of the most effective public relations operations 
inside the federal government. The department has a Broadcast Media 
and Technology Center with an annual budget of $3.2 million that each 
year produces some 90 "mission messages" for local stations - mostly 
feature segments about the good works of the Agriculture Department.

"I don't want to use the word 'filler,' per se, but they meet a need 
we have," Mr. Gee said.

The Agriculture Department's two full-time reporters, Bob Ellison and 
Pat O'Leary, travel the country filing reports, which are vetted by 
the department's office of communications before they are distributed 
via satellite and mail. Alisa Harrison, who oversees the 
communications office, said Mr. Ellison and Mr. O'Leary provide 
unbiased, balanced and accurate coverage.

"They cover the secretary just like any other reporter," she said.

Invariably, though, their segments offer critic-free accounts of the 
department's policies and programs. In one report, Mr. Ellison told 
of the agency's efforts to help Florida clean up after several 

''They've done a fantastic job,'' a grateful local official said in 
the segment.

More recently, Mr. Ellison reported that Mike Johanns, the new 
agriculture secretary, and the White House were determined to reopen 
Japan to American beef products. Of his new boss, Mr. Ellison 
reported, ''He called Bush the best envoy in the world.''

WCIA, based in Champaign, has run 26 segments made by the Agriculture 
Department over the past three months alone. Or put another way, WCIA 
has run 26 reports that did not cost it anything to produce.

Mr. Gee, the news director, readily acknowledges that these accounts 
are not exactly independent, tough-minded journalism. But, he added: 
''We don't think they're propaganda. They meet our journalistic 
standards. They're informative. They're balanced.''

More than a year ago, WCIA asked the Agriculture Department to record 
a special sign-off that implies the segments are the work of WCIA 
reporters. So, for example, instead of closing his report with ''I'm 
Bob Ellison, reporting for the U.S.D.A.,'' Mr. Ellison says, ''With 
the U.S.D.A., I'm Bob Ellison, reporting for 'The Morning Show.'''

Mr. Gee said the customized sign-off helped raise ''awareness of the 
name of our station.'' Could it give viewers the idea that Mr. 
Ellison is reporting on location with the U.S.D.A. for WCIA? ''We 
think viewers can make up their own minds,'' Mr. Gee said.

Ms. Harrison, the Agriculture Department press secretary, said the 
WCIA sign-off was an exception. The general policy, she said, is to 
make clear in each segment that the reporter works for the 
department. In any event, she added, she did not think there was much 
potential for viewer confusion. ''It's pretty clear to me,'' she said.

The 'Good News' People: A Menu of Reports From Military Hot Spots

The Defense Department is working hard to produce and distribute its 
own news segments for television audiences in the United States.

The Pentagon Channel, available only inside the Defense Department 
last year, is now being offered to every cable and satellite operator 
in the United States. Army public affairs specialists, equipped with 
portable satellite transmitters, are roaming war zones in Afghanistan 
and Iraq, beaming news reports, raw video and interviews to TV 
stations in the United States. All a local news director has to do is 
log on to a military-financed Web site,, browse a 
menu of segments and request a free satellite feed.

Then there is the Army and Air Force Hometown News Service, a unit of 
40 reporters and producers set up to send local stations news 
segments highlighting the accomplishments of military members.

''We're the 'good news' people,'' said Larry W. Gilliam, the unit's 
deputy director.

Each year, the unit films thousands of soldiers sending holiday 
greetings to their hometowns. Increasingly, the unit also produces 
news reports that reach large audiences. The 50 stories it filed last 
year were broadcast 236 times in all, reaching 41 million households 
in the United States.

The news service makes it easy for local stations to run its segments 
unedited. Reporters, for example, are never identified by their 
military titles. ''We know if we put a rank on there they're not 
going to put it on their air,'' Mr. Gilliam said.

Each account is also specially tailored for local broadcast. A 
segment sent to a station in Topeka, Kan., would include an interview 
with a service member from there. If the same report is sent to 
Oklahoma City, the soldier is switched out for one from Oklahoma 
City. ''We try to make the individual soldier a star in their 
hometown,'' Mr. Gilliam said, adding that segments were distributed 
only to towns and cities selected by the service members interviewed.

Few stations acknowledge the military's role in the segments. ''Just 
tune in and you'll see a minute-and-a-half news piece and it looks 
just like they went out and did the story,'' Mr. Gilliam said. The 
unit, though, makes no attempt to advance any particular political or 
policy agenda, he said.

''We don't editorialize at all,'' he said.

Yet sometimes the ''good news'' approach carries political meaning, 
intended or not. Such was the case after the Abu Ghraib prison 
scandal surfaced last spring. Although White House officials depicted 
the abuse of Iraqi detainees as the work of a few rogue soldiers, the 
case raised serious questions about the training of military police 

A short while later, Mr. Gilliam's unit distributed a news segment, 
sent to 34 stations, that examined the training of prison guards at 
Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where some of the military police 
officers implicated at Abu Ghraib had been trained.

''One of the most important lessons they learn is to treat prisoners 
strictly but fairly,'' the reporter said in the segment, which 
depicted a regimen emphasizing respect for detainees. A trainer told 
the reporter that military police officers were taught to ''treat 
others as they would want to be treated.'' The account made no 
mention of Abu Ghraib or how the scandal had prompted changes in 
training at Fort Leonard Wood.

According to Mr. Gilliam, the report was unrelated to any effort by 
the Defense Department to rebut suggestions of a broad command 

''Are you saying that the Pentagon called down and said, 'We need 
some good publicity?''' he asked. ''No, not at all.''

Anne E. Kornblut contributed reporting for this article.

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