Actually, they aren’t so much targeting it as trying to prevent it, as a companion measure to legislation already moving through the House. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), John Kerry (D-MA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) are behind the measure that would prohibit campaigns such as the one exposed by the New York Times earlier this spring in which the Pentagon fanned out a number of retired military experts who were putting Pentagon-approved talking points into the media conversation without disclosing the relationship. The bill would initiate investigations by the Pentagon inspector general and the GAO. Meanwhile, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said that the FCC had also received a congressional request to look into the matter while attending a media reform event in Minneapolis. He said he was as much in the dark as anyone as to whether the request is being honored or not.
RBR/TVBR observation: This is seen as the ultimate example of the covert use of the media to advance administration talking points that included the Armstrong Williams “no-child” controversy and the use of fake news stories distributed via unattributed VNRs to news outlets by several government agencies. It’s loosely in the payola/pay-for-play/pay-for-say area of FCC oversight.
Time is getting short to investigate this sort of thing while the Bush administration is still in office. And some observers have noted that it is perfectly normal for government agencies to put out press releases. Determining when it is a simple act of getting out important information to the public and when it is propaganda is no simple matter. And as students of the many gray areas in broadcast regulation know, simply saying “I know it when I see it” just doesn’t cut it as a regulatory regimen.
In the end, the Pentagon IG, GAO and FCC may all study this matter, but it’s difficult to see what they can do about it.