Sunday, October 02, 2005

GAO to Bush: Quit Propagandizin'

Remember Armstrong Williams, the conservative pundit whom the Bush administration paid last year to shill for No Child Left Behind? The Government Accountability Office ruled Friday that the cash-for-commentary scheme constituted "covert propaganda" in violation of statutory law. The GAO declared further that the Department of Education illegally paid the PR firm Ketchum Inc. to research media portrayals of Bush's commitment to education. Said the Office: "We see no use for such information except for partisan political purposes. Engaging in a purely political activity such as this is not a proper use of appropriated funds." Damn right.

Without systematic study it's difficult to tell whether this administration's media management strategies are significantly more flagrant than its predecessors, but this isn't the first time it's run afoul of the GAO. The independent congressional office has ruled against the Department of Health & Human Services, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and now the Education Department in cases involving video news releases (VNRs) designed to look like news reports and delivered to local TV stations across the nation. All three instances involve the same anchorwoman, one Karen Ryan, 'reporting' favorably on executive policies and initiatives--in the Ed Department's case, she touts Bush's efforts to improve remedial education. None of the VNRs indicate that Ms. Ryan is on the administration's payroll, which is the main reason the GAO doesn't like them.

But while its written contempt may smart a little, the GAO's decisions carry no penalties, which means there's no mandate for federal departments to adjust their media strategies to accord with the law. In fact, as far as I can tell, there's no legal mechanism through which the government has recently (ever?) been punished for violating propaganda statutes. If it turns out there's no way to hold the offending departments accountable for their infractions, or that applicable law enforcement bodies simply can't or won't do their jobs, we will continue to see the same types of propaganda again and again.

Quite apart from the question of how to prevent and punish federal media manipulation is how news stories on the White House's propagandistic activities affect its public credibility. Do people trust the government less when Armstrong Williams and VNRs are in the news, or have we been so polarized over the years that such stories only confirm the left's distaste for Bush and the right's disdain for the "liberal media"? My guess would be the latter, but only quantitative research could provide any reliable insight.