Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Bush Adminstration OKs Continued Use of Propaganda

The Bush Administration's assault on a free press continues.

Two administration officials, Joshua B. Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Steven G. Bradbury, principal deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department, said in memos last month that it was ok for federal agencies to feed TV stations prepackaged news stories that do not disclose the government's role in producing them.

As Bradbury wrote, the administration did not view such pre-packaged stories as propaganda, as long as "there is no advocacy of a particular viewpoint."

It's an amazing viewpoint. According to Bolten and Bradbury, a video news release produced by the government -- about a government initiative and prominently feature government officials -- is not advocating the government's viewpoint.

I'm sure journalists and media critics are holding their collective breath waiting for the administration to produce a story against a government initiative.

***

In January, as word spread that the government had paid conservative pundits to advocate Bush administration policy (http://jabbs.blogspot.com/2005/01/another-conservative-journalist-found.html and http://jabbs.blogspot.com/2005/01/third-conservative-journalist-found-on.html), President Bush took a position against the practice.

"We didn't know about this in the White House. There needs to be a nice independent relationship between the White House and the press, the administration and the press. All our Cabinet secretaries must realize that we will not be paying commentators to advance our agenda. Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet."

But it was just empty talk. After the memos from Bolten and Bradbury, the president -- backed by an "ok" from his legal team -- came out in favor of propaganda.

"There is a Justice Department opinion that says these pieces are OK so long as they're based upon facts, not advocacy," Bush said in a March 16 press conference. "And I expect our agencies to adhere to that ruling."

Consider the statement. Our president, leader of the free world and one of history's strongest voices for the spread of freedom and democracy, okaying the use of propaganda, something our history books tell us is best associated with communist nations, such as China and the fomer Soviet Union.

As Comptroller General David M. Walker said: "This is more than a legal issue. It's also an ethical issue and involves important good government principles, namely the need for openness in connection with government activities and expenditures. We should not just be seeking to do what's arguably legal. We should be doing what's right."

***

How does Bush administration propaganda work?

Using taxpayer dollars, the government hires a public relations firm to create "video news releases" -- slickly packaged news stories that are sent to local news stations in target markets, often in "swing states." Topics include everything from "No Child Left Behind" to the Medicaid Act of 2003. Although the Bush administration has suggested that the news releases are clearly labeled as government-produced, local news directors have contradicted this, saying that they wrongly believed the news stories were produced by legitimate free-lance journalists. More than 40 news stations have used the releases.

Last spring, the GAO concluded that the Department of Health and Human Services illegally spent federal money on video news releases on the Medicaid Act.

Were the releases "advocacy of a particular viewpoint"? You decide:

The video news releases include:

-- Footage of President Bush, in the presence of Members of Congress and others, signing the Medicare Act into law.

-- A series of clips of seniors engaged in various leisure and health-related activities, including consulting with a pharmacist and being screened for blood pressure. The narration at this point suggest ways that seniors will benefit from the changes to the law.

-- Clips of Tommy Thompson, then the HHS Secretary, and Leslie Norwalk, Acting Deputy Administrator, making statements regarding changes to Medicare under the act.

-- Each piece ends with “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.” Karen Ryan, however, is not a reporter, but a public relations firm operator paid by the government.

Seems like "advocacy of a particular viewpoint" to me.

***

Were the local stations told that Karen Ryan was a public relations employee hired by the government? They say no.

Their anchors were given two "lead-ins" for the video news releases, which further suggest that Ryan was being presented as a reporter, not a government employee.

One lead-in went: “The Federal Government is launching a new, nationwide campaign to educate 41 million people with Medicare about improvements to Medicare. Karen Ryan explains.” The other went: "In December, President Bush signed into law the first ever prescription drug benefit for people with Medicare. There have been a lot of questions about the new Medicare act and its changes to Medicare. Karen Ryan helps sort through the details.”

Worse, when HHS spokesman Bill Pierce was interviewed last year about the video news releases by Columbia Journalism Review, he initially referred to Ryan as a "freelance journalist."

As blogger Jay Rosen of PressThink wrote: "There is no rational interpretation, professional ethic, or angle of vision in which the sentence, 'From Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting' looks like anything other than a simple lie."

But the Bush Administration -- and the president himself -- say that such lies are ok.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe if the reports were clearly labeled as the government propaganda that they are, more news stations would go out of their way to splice in alternative viewpoints.
But I fear understaffed and busy newsrooms, especially those ran by right-wing managers, are not taking the extra step.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Bookworm said...

Also, before you start pointing the finger of shame at the Bush administration, I'm under the impression -- and am certainly willing to stand corrected -- that the Clinton administration used precisely the same technique. It seems to me that the media, whether for carelessness or other reasons, really bears the blame here. If they are incapable of identifying the source for their material and, if appropriate, passing that information on to their viewers/readers, we've got a lot more serious problem than an administration, whether Democratic or Republican, seeking to pass on its ideas.

2:07 PM  
Anonymous alias: "cutiepie" johnson said...

Video news releases date back to Reagan. According to the GAO, Clinton had one commissioned, in 1999, featuring Donna Shalala. It's unclear whether it was sent to news stations, of just used at corporate events or educational summits or whathaveyou.

I agree the news stations that used the releases were dumb. But maybe the Bush administration was counting on that?

And even still, that doesn't really excuse the widespread use of propaganda, does it?

2:39 PM  

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