Despite a rising chorus of condemnation from journalists and media critics, the George W. Bush administration shows no signs of abandoning its distribution of taxpayer-funded “news” to U.S. newspapers, radio and television stations.
Free press advocates are up in arms about what they say is the covert dissemination of propaganda by government agencies.
In one case, the administration — seeking to build support among black families for its education reform plans — paid a prominent African American pundit, Armstrong Williams, 240,000 dollars to promote the “No Child Left Behind” law on his nationally syndicated television show and through his newspaper column, and to urge other black journalists to do the same.
Two other nationally known journalists, Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus, have also admitted accepting thousands of dollars to endorse government programmes.
Since 2001, the Army and Air Force Hometown News Service has fielded 40 reporters, producers and public affairs specialists to create “good military news” to be beamed to home audiences via local news stations. The service’s “good news” segments have reportedly reached 41 million Americans via local newscasts — in most cases, without the station acknowledging their source.
More than 20 different federal agencies used taxpayer funds to produce television news segments promoting Bush administration policies. These “video news releases,” or VNRs, were broadcast on hundreds of local news programmes without disclosing their source.
And the military’s TV outlet the Pentagon Channel, which formerly targeted the armed forces, is now available to U.S. citizens via every satellite and cable operator.
Regarding the VNRs, Pres. Bush said the government’s practice of sending “packaged news stories” to local television stations was legal and he has no plans to cease it.
His defence of the packages, which are designed to look like television news segments, came after the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a Congressional watchdog agency, called them a form of covert propaganda.
The administration responded that, “Executive Branch agencies are not bound by GAO’s legal advice” but should be guided by the views of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, part of the executive branch.
GAO said that publications that are “misleading as to their origin and reasonably constitute ‘propaganda’ within the common understanding of that term.” Its definition of propaganda includes “covert attempts to mold opinion through the undisclosed use of third parties.”
Last week, two influential media advocacy groups, Free Press and the Centre for Media and Democracy, filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging Chairman Kevin J. Martin to investigate broadcasters who distribute government-sponsored news reports without identifying their source.
Nearly 40,000 concerned citizens have already signed a petition circulated by the two groups last week calling on the FCC, Congress and local broadcasters to “stop fake news”, the groups reported.
Free Press is a nonpartisan organisation working to increase informed public participation in media policy and promote more public interest-oriented media. The Centre for Media and Democracy publishes “PR Watch”, a newsletter that investigates the public relations industry and other professional propagandists.
According to Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, the petition calls on the FCC to “take quick action to investigate and eradicate news fraud and enforce the existing laws against payola. Congress must enact new laws that will stop government-funded fake news from airing without a disclaimer.”
Other media critics were equally vocal.
“The administration practice of clandestine support for commentators and video press releases reinforces the nagging suspicion that much of what passes for news nowadays is actually bought and paid for in order to advance a particular agenda,” Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, told IPS.
“Paying journalists to write positive stories is part of a pattern of secrecy and manipulating the public that undermines our safety and our democracy.”
Rick Blum of OpenTheGovernment.org, another pro-transparency advocacy group, charged that “The public expects journalists are credible and independent, free of government money and conflicts of interest.”
He told IPS, “Government actions should stand the scrutiny of an enterprising, independent press. Using tax dollars to literally write the news about government programs, new drug approvals, consumer protection programs, and security efforts robs taxpayers of an effective watch on how their tax dollars are spent.”
Norman Solomon, a syndicated columnist on media and politics and founder of the Institute for Public Accuracy, said in an interview that the subterfuge involved was the most dangerous aspect.
“The ‘video news releases’ put out by the U.S. government are pernicious because the TV broadcasts often do not tell the viewers that the government is funding and controlling those supposed ‘news’ reports,” he said.
Martin Kaplan, head of the Lear Centre at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, believes that as a result, the legitimacy of all news has been undermined.
“It’s bad enough that the Bush administration is disseminating domestic propaganda,” he told IPS. “But the consequence of their injecting fake news into the media mainstream may be even worse than poisoning public debate on specific issues. It corrodes the ability of real journalism to do its job.”
The federal government’s practice of sending “packaged news” to media outlets began under the Bill Clinton administration. Pres. Bush has not only continued the practice, he has doubled the amount of federal tax dollars that are used for this purpose, spending 254 million dollars in his first term.
Free Press and the Centre for Media and Democracy are also working with local groups to establish “citizen agreements” with local stations, under which broadcasters pledge to clearly identify or label pre-packaged reports produced the government.
Soon after the Armstrong Williams scandal broke, Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to 22 federal agencies. She is seeking evidence of similar arrangements between the executive branch, PR firms and pundits.
FOIA was signed into law by President Johnson in 1966 to increase public access to federal government records.
Since Bush entered office, the report says, there has been a more than 75 percent increase in the amount of government information classified as secret each year. There has been a corresponding explosion in the number of requests for information under FOIA.
“Yet an even more aggressive form of government information control has gone un-enumerated and often unrecognised in the Bush era, as government agencies have restricted access to unclassified information in libraries, archives, Web sites, and official databases,” says Steven Aftergood. William Fisher , IPS