Bush Team Chided for Propaganda Policies

Bush’s Drug Videos Broke Law, Accountability Office Decides (NYT)

The Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, said on Thursday that the Bush administration violated federal law by producing and distributing television news segments about the effects of drug use among young people. The accountability office said the videos “constitute covert propaganda” because the government was not identified as the source of the materials, which were distributed by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. They were broadcast by nearly 300 television stations and reached 22 million households, the office said. The accountability office does not have law enforcement powers, but its decisions on federal spending are usually considered authoritative.

In May the office found that the Bush administration had violated the same law by producing television news segments that portrayed the new Medicare law as a boon to the elderly.

The accountability office was not critical of the content of the video segments from the White House drug office, but found that the format – a made-for-television “story package” – violated the prohibition on using taxpayer money for propaganda. Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, the senior Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, who requested the review, said the use of the mock news segments broke “a fundamental principle of open government.”

A spokesman for the drug policy office said the review’s conclusions made a “mountain out of a molehill.” The spokesman, Tom Riley, noted that Congress had authorized the drug policy office to fashion antidrug messages in motion pictures and television programming and on the Internet. His office stopped distributing the antidrug videos after the G.A.O. report on the Medicare segments, Mr. Riley said, and never acted unlawfully.

The drug policy office told investigators that it would have been difficult for “a reasonable broadcaster” to mistake the videos for independent news reports. But the G.A.O. said the drug policy office “made it impossible for the targeted viewing audience to ascertain that these stories were produced by the government.” Federal law prohibits the use of federal money for “publicity or propaganda purposes” not authorized by Congress. The accountability office has found that federal agencies violated this restriction when they distributed editorials and newspaper articles written by government officials without identifying them.

In related news,

Education Dept. paid commentator to promote law (USA Today)

Seeking to build support among black families for its education reform law, the Bush administration paid a prominent black pundit $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same. The campaign, part of an effort to promote No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required commentator Armstrong Williams “to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts,” and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004. Williams said Thursday he understands that critics could find the arrangement unethical, but “I wanted to do it because it’s something I believe in.”

The top Democrat on the House Education Committee, Rep. George Miller of California, called the contract “a very questionable use of taxpayers’ money” that is “probably illegal.” He said he will ask his Republican counterpart to join him in requesting an investigation. The contract, detailed in documents obtained by USA TODAY through a Freedom of Information Act request, also shows that the Education Department, through the Ketchum public relations firm, arranged with Williams to use contacts with America’s Black Forum, a group of black broadcast journalists, “to encourage the producers to periodically address” NCLB. He persuaded radio and TV personality Steve Harvey to invite Paige onto his show twice. Harvey’s manager, Rushion McDonald, confirmed the appearances.

The ability to go directly to the public by “jawboning” is perhaps the most important power of the presidency with respect to domestic policy. I’m not exactly where the line should be drawn here, given the power of the so-called “New Media.” As candidate and later president, Bill Clinton effectively used comparatively friendly venues like Don Imus, “60 Minutes,” Arsenio Hall, Larry King, and others to bypass the screen of traditional journalists to get his message out. Similarly, Republicans used things like the “Harry and Sally” ads to combat Clinton’s health care agenda much more effectively than traditional stump speeches and talking head ads could have done.

Putting out propaganda disguised as pseudo-documentaries such is well within the realm of traditional advertising packages. Anyone who has read a news magazine lately knows it is often difficult to tell the “special advertising supplements” from the featured articles.

Still, I’m a bit queasy about these steps. Certainly, if they’re violating the spirit of the law, it’s a bad thing. Still, even aside from legality, there are at least two problems apparent here.

1. In this case, the White House was merely promoting the nearly universally agreed upon message that “drugs are bad.” But if presidents can spend taxpayer money on such propaganda messages, what’s to stop them from using it to promote their own agenda on items of controversy before Congress?

2. More importantly, given that the government controls the ability of stations to operate, allowing the government to force content providers to put out public policy propaganda as part of their programs is problematic. It’s not a very slippery slope at all to the point where the government controls what messages are permissible in entertainment programs.

FILED UNDER: Media, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. bryan says:

    i’m personally pretty concerned about the Armstrong Williams move. I don’t recall anything about this coming out in the news. Was he mentioning the payment prior to the interviews with Paige? If we’re going to hold regular media to standards of transparency and accountability, the same should hold true for commentators like Williams.

  2. Davod says:

    What is and what is not propoganda. It seems to me that the government is caught no matter what it does. How is the government to get its message out. I remember the crys that a. the medicare presvription drug ploicy was no good and also that the government did not do enough to get its message out. The same for No Child Left Behind. The media is not always sympathetic to the governments policies. Therefore the message does not get out, hence policy is purported to be a failure.

  3. Noel says:

    I admire Armstrong tremendously, but as a proponent of small government, he shouldn’t have taken the money.

    That said, this is standard practice and hundreds of liberal groups get tax-payers funds for similar “get-out-the-message” or other “services”. Witness public service announcements, most of which have a liberal tilt, or the money recieved by Planned Parentlessness or PBS to name but a few.

    Calls for an investigation are hooey. We should just defund all of them…but we won’t.

  4. anjin-san says:

    Anti-terror funding in the SF Bay area will be cut about 10 million dollars this year by the Bush admin. Guess buying off columnists is more important than protecting the lives of US citizens.