WASHINGTON -- Shortly before last year's Super Bowl, local news stations across the country aired a story by Mike Morris describing plans for a new White House ad campaign on the dangers of drug abuse.
What viewers did not know was that Morris is not a journalist and his ''report" was produced by the government, actions which constituted illegal ''covert propaganda," according to an investigation by the Government Accountability Office.
In the second ruling of its kind, the investigative arm of Congress this week scolded the Bush administration for distributing phony prepackaged news reports that include a ''suggested live intro" for anchors to read, interviews with Washington officials, and a closing that mimics a typical broadcast news sign-off.
Although television stations knew the materials were produced by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, there was nothing in the two-minute, prepackaged reports that would indicate to viewers that they came from the government or that Morris, a former journalist, was working under contract for the government.
''You think you are getting a news story but what you are getting is a paid announcement," said Susan Poling, managing associate general counsel at the Government Accountability Office. ''What is objectionable about these is the fact the viewer has no idea their tax dollars are being used to write and produce this video segment."
In May, the Government Accountability Office concluded that the Department of Health and Human Services violated two federal laws with similar fake news reports touting the administration's new Medicare drug benefit. When that opinion was released, officials at the drug control office decided to stop the practice, spokesman Thomas Riley said.
''Our lawyers disagree with the GAO interpretation," he said. Nevertheless, if the video releases were going to be ''controversial or create an appearance of a problem," the agency decided it was not worth pursuing, he said.
The prepackaged news pieces represent a fraction of the antidrug messages distributed by the office, Riley said.
Production and distribution of the video news releases cost about $155,000.
Riley said broadcast stations were fully aware they were receiving materials akin to printed press releases that producers could ''slice and dice it however they want."
At least 300 news shows used some portion of the prepackaged news reports, though it was impossible to determine how many aired the full story or just portions such as ''sound bites," Riley said.
If the videos had been identified as coming from the federal agency, that would have been legal, Poling said. But the television package looks like an authentic piece of independent journalism.