Congressional investigators warned federal agencies this week that the promotion of government policies through video news releases meant to look like TV news stories may violate federal rules against propaganda.

In a letter sent Thursday to heads of government departments and agencies, the Government Accountability Office noted that “prepackaged news stories have become common tools of the public relations industry.”

The presentations “are intended to be indistinguishable from news segments broadcast to the public by independent television news organizations,” the letter said.

Comptroller General David M. Walker warned that such productions may violate a government prohibition, enacted in 1951, against the use of appropriated funds for propaganda.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy was criticized last year for a series of video news releases in which a narrator, sometimes identified as “Karen Ryan” or “Mike Morris,” said she or he was “reporting” on the office’s activities. The tapes were sent to local television stations for use in news programs.

In a second case criticized by the GAO last year, the Health and Human Services Department’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services produced video news releases touting changes to Medicare. Those productions were also narrated by “Karen Ryan” and were offered to local TV news operations.

In both cases, Walker wrote Thursday, “television-viewing audiences did not know that stories they watched on television news programs about the government were, in fact, prepared by the government. We concluded that those prepackaged news stories violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition.”

The GAO letter did say video news releases could be used without violating the law if it was clearly disclosed to the viewing audience that the material was prepared by the government.

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