Saturday, October 01, 2005

GAO Says Bush Administration Broke Anti-Propaganda Rules (Surprise, Surprise) Pushing No Child Left Behind

As expected, the Government Accountability Office said yesterday that the Bush Administration broke anti-propaganda rules by using tax dollars to create an undocumented video news release, and to pay pundit Armstrong Williams, to promote the administration's education policies.

(For background on the payments to Armstrong, read this JABBS post. For more on video news releases, or VNRs, check out this JABBS post, or this one.)

The GAO, the non-partisan investigative arm of Congress, issued two reports yesterday examining Department of Education contracts with a public relations firm, Ketchum Inc. Ketchum prepared a video for use in television news programs, checked news stories to see how the Republican Party's view on education was reported and contracted with commentator Armstrong Williams, the report said.

The education department took these steps to promote President Bush's No Child Left Behind law, which established new testing requirements for public schools, the report said. The news video does not say the federal government is the source of the material, nor did Williams reveal the government's connection to his comment, the report said.

The Department of Education paid $38,421.06 for production of a video news release and $96,850.99 for analysis of news reports, the GAO said. The department asked Ketchum to arrange a subcontract with Williams' Graham Williams Group. Ketchum paid his firm $186,000 in connection with certain work done for the education department, the GAO report said.

***

"The president has said it was wrong,'' said Erin Healy, a spokeswoman for the White House. "The Department of Education already has taken steps to address it.''

While that statement is true (see below), it's woefully out of context. As JABBS has previously reported, Bush has actually had several opinions on his administration's use of propaganda.

Since January, Bush has offered at least three:

BUSH STATEMENT #1: "There needs to be a nice independent relationship between the White House and the press, the administration and the press," Bush said during a January press conference. "Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet."

Fair enough. But before long, Bush had changed his mind. In March -- backed by an "ok" from his legal team -- we received:

BUSH STATEMENT #2: "There is a Justice Department opinion that says these pieces are OK so long as they're based upon facts, not advocacy. And I expect our agencies to adhere to that ruling."

Amazingly, Bush was suggesting that propaganda created by the government was not "advocacy" -- as if his administration would pay a journalist or create a video news release to oppose the administration. Americans haven't seen the English language so tortured since President Clinton sought a definition of the word "is."

Which brings us to his April 14 comments, and:

BUSH STATEMENT #3: "Yes, it's deceptive to the American people if it's not disclosed. And I -- first of all, in reviewing this issue have been told this has gone on for quite a while. It makes -- that doesn't excuse the behavior here, but nevertheless it has been, in that it's a legal -- it's legal for -- to use these video news clips. But it's incumbent upon people who use them to say, this news clip was produced by the federal government. Armstrong Williams -- it was wrong what happened there in the Education Department. But, no, I think there needs to be full disclosure about the sourcing of the video news clip in order to make sure that people don't think their taxpayer's money is being used to -- in wrong fashion."

What was the message Bush delivered in April? In a sense, he's saying that while it's wrong to pay journalists like Williams, it's equally wrong for local television station producers and the like to not realize they are allowing government propaganda on the air.

It's hardly "the buck stops here."

***

Rather than act proactively, the Bush Administration has, in effect, waited for Congress and the FCC to clamp down on undocumented VNRs.

The Senate already has passed the so-called Byrd Amendment, sponsored by Robert Byrd (D-WV) which says federal money cannot be used to prepare video news releases “unless the story includes a clear notification within the text or audio ... that the prepackaged news story was prepared or funded” by the federal agency. That amendment was in effect until last month, although Senate Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) has said he will try to push to make the amendment permanent.

Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and John Kerry (D-MA) offered the Truth in Broadcasting Act, which would require agencies and the White House to include a disclaimer that is visible throughout the VNR and contains the words “PRODUCED BY THE U.S. GOVERNMENT.” Broadcasters would be penalized for removing the disclaimer. The legislation has stalled, as senators await for the Federal Communications Commission to render an opinion on the matter.

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