DEAR Maria: Can it really be a dozen years — 13, actually — since you and I met during the 1992 presidential campaign? We were both covering the news then, and thats what Im writing to you about: journalism.

You didnt know it — your husband (our governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger) probably didnt know it either — but people who work for him, people he appointed, pulled a Karen Ryan stunt last week.

Remember Karen Ryan? As in, Karen Ryan reporting? She was the reporter who turned hired public relations gun and then pretended to be a journalist doing a fair-and-balanced TV report on the White House prescription drug plan. It was a good imitation of a news story, but it wasnt news — it was stealth plugola for the federal Department of Health and Human Services praising a Bush administration drug program that was getting slammed in the real news. It was, according to the Government Accountability Office, covert propaganda, and it was against the law.

Now the Schwarzenegger administration has produced its own version of the same thing: spending $1,262 in tax money for a video news release that plugs a proposal to wipe out mandatory lunch breaks for hourly workers. Again, the voice of an ex-reporter — whos now working for the state — is heard over professionally shot B-roll images of men and women at work. A couple of interviews with apparent experts and some text helpfully provided for the in-studio anchor to open and close — and, presto!, you just might seduce California viewers from Crescent City to National City into thinking their little TV station has its very own reporter in the capital city, Sacramento. Karen Ryan goes west.

Nothing in the report says it was produced by the governors staff. Nothing in it suggests anything but unanimity on this lunch-break rule change — no on the other hand, no critics say. Heres part of the voice-over: Many working Californians can benefit from the proposed regulations because the change provides real-life relief.

Nor does the report identify one of the interviewees as a manager in a restaurant chain that is part of an industry group that donated $21,000 to a Schwarzenegger campaign fund. Or say the chain might have to fork over

$10 million to its workers in a suit over its handling of employee lunch breaks, the topic at hand.

If you or I had filed such a credulous, one-sided story, the next writing wed be doing would be filling out unemployment forms.

Rob Stutzman, the governors communications director, says its just like any other press release, only its on video. You know better, Maria, I know better, and we know Rob knows better. Real political news releases have the official seal and the name and rank of the poll they represent all over them — thats the point.

The policy being pushed is incidental: Today, its the good news about doing away with meal breaks. Tomorrow, its a report telling us how great it is that we wont have to pay such high prices for tap water because the state no longer tests it for toxic substances, or how happy Californians are to be free of the burdens of filling out those confusing medical claim forms because they dont have health insurance anymore.

More than a year ago, you took a leave from your NBC News job because it was becoming clear, you said, that My journalistic integrity and that of NBC News will be constantly scrutinized. You worried about even the appearance of journalistic bias, but your husbands administration just wrote it into the playbook.

Its not as if the governor has trouble getting media attention. Gray Davis could have climbed the Capitol dome and set his hair on fire and only his barber might have noticed. Paul Koretz, the Democratic assemblyman from West Hollywood, counts five stations that aired the package entirely and uncritically — more than a dozen more used parts of it — and has asked the attorney generals office to find out whether this is legal. It is, he thinks, a scam, plain and simple.

Last summer, after your husband spoke at the Republican National Convention, he admitted to a California audience that your review of his speech came down to this: There was no sex for 14 days. Far be it from me to meddle in anyone elses menage, but maybe you could home-school him in Journalism 101. After all, the difference between fake news and real news is about as vast as a difference in that other arena he mentioned, where faking it is no substitute for the real thing.

Patt Morrison is a Los Angeles Times columnist and frequent commentator on National Public

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