Dissecting The Big Lie

Tim McGivern
10 min read
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Being lied to sucks. Bankrolling the production of lies with our own tax dollars really sucks. But mendacity, unfortunately, seems to be the preferred political tactic when the Bush administration promotes its policies, brushing off each lie as if it were just a joke.

But at least one federal agency, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an arm of Congress that investigates federal government conduct and expenditures, isn't laughing.

Over the past year, the GAO has admonished the Bush administration on three separate occasions to stop deceiving the public, citing the use of “covert propaganda” produced by private public relations firms with funds funneled from the Bush administration to produce what the government calls “video news releases.” These so-called news releases were distributed to TV networks across the country and aired without acknowledging that the government produced them. That's right, over the past two years millions of Americans digested government propaganda while watching their local news and never knew it.

As a result, one GAO report, issued in February, proclaimed that federal agencies should not produce prepackaged faux-news reports “that conceal or do not clearly identify for the television viewing audience that the agency was the source of the materials.”

What was the Bush administration's response? In March, the Justice Department and Office of Management and Budget, according to a memo obtained by The New York Times, “instructed all executive agencies to ignore the GAO findings.” The Justice Department called the White House's prepackaged news “purely informational” and said the government's role in producing them did not need to be revealed to an otherwise unsuspecting audience.

So it seems in the Bush administration the confluence of government propaganda and corporate marketing strategies has finally molded into a single Orwellian apparatus. Not only are public relations experts writing the news on behalf of the government, but all participants in the transmission process benefit from the Big Lie.

In a March 13 article entitled “Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged TV News,” Times reporters David Barstow and Robin Stein write: “Local affiliates are spared the expense of digging up original material. Public relations firms secure government contracts worth millions of dollars. The major networks, which help distribute the releases, collect fees from the government agencies that produce segments and the affiliates that show them. The administration, meanwhile, gets out an unfiltered message, delivered in the guise of traditional reporting.”

At least 20 federal agencies, including the State Department, Pentagon and Department of Health and Human Services, have released hundreds of television news releases in the past four years that are indistinguishable from “any other 90-second segment on the local news,” the Times reported.

According to the GAO, the Bush administration spent $254 million in taxpayer money over the past four years on “video news releases.” A report released by Congressional Democrats disclosed that one well-connected company, Ketchum Communications, received $97 million of that pot.

Ketchum has specialized in corporate “brand marketing” since 1923 and creating faux news reports for corporations that are distributed to local TV stations as “ready-to-use” news supplements. Its website proclaims: “Our precision entails successfully delivering a message to any audience with a smart, strategic approach, the creative talent to ensure an impact, and the commitment to perfect execution. Ketchum’s success rests on the biggest ideas and the smallest details.”

Unfortunately, there are countless examples of propaganda penetrating the public consciousness thanks to the Bush administration's flair for deceit. In practically every known case, a public relations consultant was involved in the production, and the corporate broadcast media willingly served the cause. A few random examples come to mind: the Pentagon's fictionalized telling of the Jessica Lynch story; the onslaught of “code orange” alerts prior to the presidential election that suddenly vanished postelection; the staged toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad; President Bush's unforgettable mission accomplished moment aboard a Navy aircraft carrier; the bogus letters to the editor from soldiers in Iraq to their hometown papers all written by Pentagon personnel; and the most recent low point—deliberately concealing the facts of Pat Tillman's death to exploit his memory for political gain.

On that note, I leave you with this memorable quote from Pat Tillman's Dad: “The path to true patriotism is confronting your government when it lies.” Amen.

Columnists and Pseudo-journalists on the Take

The Bush administration, through Ketchum, paid Armstrong Williams, a prominent African-American conservative, $240,000 last year to promote its No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy on his syndicated television show “The Right Side” and in his syndicated newspaper columns that appear in USA Today and in smaller papers around the country. The contract, which Williams never disclosed to his audiences, also required him to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige on air and promote NCLB to other African-American journalists.

Syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher received $21,500 from Ketchum on behalf of the Department of Health and Human services to promote Bush's abstinence before marriage policy. “Did I violate journalistic ethics by not disclosing it?” Gallagher said in the Washington Post when the scam was uncovered on Jan. 27. “I don’t know. You tell me.” She said she would have “been happy to tell anyone who called me” about the contract but “frankly, it never occurred to me” to tell readers.

The very next day, a third columnist, Mike McManus, whose weekly column appears in 40 newspapers, admitted receiving $10,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services to advocate the White House's policy opposing same-sex marriage and abstinence before marriage. At the same time McManus was writing his columns as a “marriage expert,” his nonprofit, Marriage Savers, received $49,000 from HHS to promote “healthy marriages” to unwed couples.

None of these columnists disclosed their role as government contractors and only admitted to taking taxpayer money once the scam was revealed in the media.

Tribune Media Services dropped Williams’ column after his administration contract was disclosed. Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes Gallagher’s column, did not.

Video News Releases

Here's a sample of what has appeared on local broadcasts around the country, never once disclosing the “news” was produced by the federal government. One State Department video news release promotes Bush's regime change policy with an Iraqi-American actor in Kansas City saying, “Thank You, Bush. Thank you, U.S.A.” Another features a public relations professional disguised as a Transportation Security Administration employee (using an alias), extolling the administration's “remarkable campaign to strengthen aviation security.”

Of the hundreds of “VNRs” released in the past four years, the most famous, perhaps, features Karen Ryan, a former ABC and PBS journalist turned public relations consultant.

Ryan's famous government-funded newscast on the benefits of the White House's Medicare drug benefit legislation featured a scripted interview with U.S. Health and Human Services Sec. Tommy Thompson that appeared on over 40 television news broadcasts in 2004, reaching an audience of several million, according to the GAO. In an interview with the Times on March 13, 2005, Ryan said Sec. Thompson knew the questions in advance and that “she was there mostly to help him give better, snappier answers.” Ryan jokingly called herself a “paid shill for the Bush Administration” in the Times and said, “everyone involved was aware of the potential political benefits.”

The news segment even provided the lead for local anchors, which was factually wrong: “In December, President Bush signed into law the first ever prescription drug benefit for people with Medicare.” It shows Bush signing the legislation and Ryan reports “all people with Medicare will be able to get coverage that will lower their prescription spending” (another dubious claim). It ends with, “reporting from Washington, I'm Karen Ryan.” It never mentioned a word of criticism of the legislation, including the administration's underestimated cost or how it serves the interests of pharmaceutical companies who lobbied for the bill. The GAO derided the report as “not strictly factual” with “notable omissions,” and some stations that aired it later said they thought it was an actual news report and never knew it came from the White House.

A similar series of government-funded news releases featuring Ryan and distributed by the Office of National Drug Control Policy reached over 22 million households on nearly 300 television stations over a total of 56 days last year.

In the GAO report, an ONDCP official states, “It would be virtually impossible for a reasonable broadcaster to mistake the VNRs for … independent news report(s).”

“However, none of the prepackaged news stories and suggested anchor remarks contained in any of these video releases disclosed the (federal) agency’s role (as producer and distributor of those materials) to television viewing audiences,” said the GAO report.

What is certain is that these news reports serve a niche in the average local news broadcast, which is expanding coverage while trimming local staff all over the country in order to enhance corporate profits. The question is: Why aren't listeners, readers and viewers being told the source of these reports?

“Talk to the television stations that ran it without attribution,” said William Pierce, a spokesman for HHS, in an interview with the Times. “This is not our problem. We cannot be held responsible for their actions.”

Or better yet, why is this propaganda being allowed on the airwaves by Congress and the FCC in the first place?


You Mean a Disclosure?

An excerpt from a presidential press conference dated Wednesday, March 16, 2005.

Question: Mr. President, earlier this year you told us you had wanted your administration to cease and desist on payments to journalists to promote your agenda. You cited the need for ethical concerns and the need for a bright line between the press and the government. Your administration continues to make the use of video news releases, which are prepackaged news stories sent to television stations, fully aware that some or many of these stations will air them without any disclaimer that they are produced by the government.

The comptroller general of the United States this week said that raises ethical questions. Does it raise ethical questions about the use of government money to produce stories about the government that wind up being aired with no disclosure that they were produced by the government?

Bush: There is a Justice Department opinion that says these pieces are within the law so long as they’re based upon facts, not advocacy. … And I expect our agencies to adhere to that ruling, to that Justice Department opinion. This has been a longstanding practice of the federal government to use these types of videos. The Agricultural Department, as I understand it, has been using these videos for a long period of time. The Defense Department, other departments have been doing so. It’s important that they be based upon the guidelines set out by the Justice Department. Now, I also—I think it would be helpful if local stations then disclosed to their viewers that this was based upon a factual report and they chose to use it. … But evidently in some cases that’s not the case.

Question: But the administration could guarantee that’s happening by including that language in the prepackaged report?

Bush: You mean a disclosure? “I’m George W. Bush and I …


Question: Well, some way to make sure it couldn’t air without the disclosure that you believe is so vital.

Bush: You know, Ken, I mean, there’s a procedure that we’re going to follow and the local stations ought to—since there’s a deep concern about that—ought to tell their viewers what they’re watching.

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