Like much news that's damaging to the Bush
administration, the report came out on a Friday.
Since then, it's gotten little media attention -- just 41 mentions in U.S.
newspapers and wire stories, according to a news database search on October
11. That's remarkably sparse coverage for a story showing that the U.S. government
has been engaged in illegal propaganda
aimed at its own citizens.
On September 30, the nonpartisan, investigative arm of the U.S. Congress,
the Government Accountability Office
(GAO), announced that several aspects of work done for the
of Education by the public relations firm Ketchum
violated federal law. Taxpayer-funded projects carried out by Ketchum
or its subcontractors -- including Armstrong
Williams and Karen
Ryan -- constituted "covert
propaganda" or "purely partisan activities," according
to the GAO.
Yet, what the GAO has condemned, administration officials seem to consider
business as usual.
Standard Operating Propaganda Procedures
In one such disputed activity, a Ketchum subcontractor wrote an article about
an Education Department study of "parents' views on the declining science
literacy of students." The article ran "in numerous small newspapers
and circulars throughout the country," with no disclosure of "the
Department's involvement in its writing." Similar practices also happened
under another Education Department contract with the same company, the GAO noted.
A different subcontractor produced a prepackaged television news story, or
news release (VNR), on tutoring and other student assistance programs included
in the No
Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Karen Ryan, a PR flack who misrepresents herself
as a reporter on the VNR, closes the segment with, "This is a program that
gets an A-plus." The Education Department has defended the VNR as containing
only "factual information." The GAO found it to be "covert propaganda,"
not because of its content, but because the Department's role in commissioning,
directing and funding the piece was not disclosed to viewers.
In the third case, the Ketchum firm analyzed "media coverage for the messages
associated with the No Child Left Behind Act ... in trade and consumer media
outlets." While the GAO found "the media analysis as a whole"
to be "within the information functions authorized," it ruled that
one message Ketchum scanned media reports for -- "the Bush administration
/ the GOP (Republican
Party) is committed to education" -- was prohibited, since it served
"purely partisan purposes." The GAO urged the Education Department
to be "more diligent in its efforts to ensure" that future analyses
are "free from such explicit partisan content."
Lastly, the GAO reviewed the activities of conservative commentator Armstrong
Williams, whose PR firm, the Graham
Williams Group, was yet another subcontractor on the Education Department
- Ketchum agreement. The GAO found that "the Department violated the publicity
or propaganda prohibition when it issued task orders to Ketchum directing it
to arrange for Mr. Williams to regularly comment on the NCLB Act without requiring
Ketchum to ensure that Mr. Williams disclosed to his audiences his relationship
with the Department."
According to his monthly work reports, Williams undertook "168 separate
activities" to promote NCLB, including "speeches, interviews, appearances,
and a published newspaper column." While no details are available for the
vast majority of these activities -- raising the question of whether
Williams' work even warranted the $186,000 he received on his $240,000 contract
-- what is known is that Williams "did not regularly, if at all, disclose
to his audiences or the colleagues he was to influence that he had been hired"
by the Education Department.
What You Don't Know Can Propagandize You
In addition to documenting and condemning these taxpayer-funded "covert
propaganda" and "purely partisan" activities, the recent ruling
reiterated the GAO's strong standard for determining when government-funded
VNRs (or, presumably, their radio cousins, audio
news releases) are illegal:
The failure of an agency to identify itself as the source of a prepackaged
news story misleads the viewing public by encouraging the viewing audience
to believe that the broadcasting news organization developed the information.
The prepackaged news stories are purposefully designed to be indistinguishable
from news segments broadcast to the public. When the television viewing public
does not know that the stories they watched on television news programs about
the government were in fact prepared by the government, the stories are, in
this sense, no longer purely factual -- the essential fact of attribution
This common-sense standard is similar to what the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC) wrote in its April
2005 Public Notice: "Listeners and viewers are entitled to know who
seeks to persuade them."
To defend its stance, the GAO didn't just rely on common sense. It pointed
to 20 years of precedent, including Comptroller General rulings and Congressional
measures, most recently a May 2005 act mandating "a clear notification
within the text or audio of the prepackaged news story that [it] was prepared
or funded by that executive branch agency."
There's just one problem -- that's not how the Bush administration sees it.
of Legal Counsel, the Office
of Management and Budget and, more recently, the Department of Education's
Inspector General have all rejected the "audience must know" standard.
Instead, they argue, hidden government involvement in the news is fine, as long
as government messages are "informational" and not "persuasional."
Incidentally, these offices haven't elaborated on how to distinguish between
information and persuasion, but, as noted above, they think it's just "informational"
when a VNR features a faux reporter declaring that an administration program
"gets an A-plus."
Which standard -- "audience must know" or "covert 'information'
is OK" -- will win the day? And will that standard be enforced? How these
questions are answered will, in effect, determine how much trust U.S. residents
are able to place in what they read, hear and see reported on the policies and
activities of their government.
The bad news is that the GAO can not enforce its ruling and the Bush administration
claims that audience disclosure is beside the point. The good news is that both
Congress and the FCC have indicated that they intend to address the use of VNRs
and other forms of media manipulation. Even more importantly, the
U.S. public doesn't want to be exposed to hidden propaganda.
What You Can Do To Save the News
We, the public, can achieve real change by demanding an end to such "fake
news," through informed, articulated and directed dissent. That's why
the Center for
Media and Democracy and the media reform group Free
Press launched a letter
writing campaign last week, calling for the Education Department's transgressions,
as documented in the GAO report, to be prosecuted "to the fullest extent
of the law."
Imagine the impact it will have if we deliver tens of thousands -- better yet,
hundreds of thousands -- of these letters to Attorney General Gonzales
and the heads of the Congressional Judiciary and Appropriations committees.
If you haven't yet, please send a letter today by
clicking here. If you've already sent a letter, please forward the link
to five or ten friends, explaining why this is such an important issue.
There are many ways that you can make a difference, as we point out on our
frequently-updated "No Fake News!" campaign page.
This fall, further action is expected on Senate
Bill 967, the Truth in Broadcasting Act. This is the strongest measure before
Congress that deals with fake news. It would require clear on-screen or audio
disclosures for all government-produced VNRs and audio news releases (ANRs).
Even if you've already contacted your elected representatives on the issue,
call them again to reiterate your support for the Truth in Broadcasting Act
and to urge that a companion measure be introduced in the House.
The FCC is poised to take action on VNRs, as well. In April, the Commission
issued a Public Notice and asked for information on how broadcasters use VNRs.
(You can read the comment filed by the Center and Free Press by
clicking here.) The FCC's deliberations are especially important, since,
unlike Congress, their regulations would apply to fake news from all sources,
both government and private -- and corporations are by far the largest purveyor
of VNRs and ANRs.
Lastly, tracking the PR
firms, government agencies and third
party endorsers in the fake news business is exactly what SourceWatch
-- the Center's online encyclopedia of people, issues and groups shaping the
public agenda -- was designed to do. We've started SourceWatch articles on the
ten groups identified as recipients of Education Department grants for public
Council on Teacher Quality,
Council for Reform and Educational Options,
Alliance for Educational Options,
Educational Opportunities Foundation,
Council of Negro Women,
for Educational Radio and Television,
American National Council,
Testing Service, and
Public Relations Worldwide
Help us add
to these articles with background information, links to relevant news stories,
examples of Education Department PR -- whatever you can document! Through its
high ranking on Internet search engines and its large and growing database,
SourceWatch makes relevant, detailed information easily accessible to reporters,
bloggers, educators, citizen researchers and others who, like you, care about
the state of the media.
What better way to counter propaganda than with transparent, collaborative
research? As French screenwriter Jean
Anouilh wrote, "Propaganda is a soft weapon; hold it in your hands
too long, and it will move about like a snake, and strike the other way."
With your help, the snake will not just be deflected, but defanged.