Continued violence in Iraq, a struggling economy, an unpopular plan to privatize Social Security, homeland security left underfunded while the wealthy get giant tax cuts ... What's a White House to do when the news about its policies isn't favorable? Fake it.
An explosive, front-page New York Times story last Sunday exposed the Bush administration's attempts to manipulate public opinion. Over the past four years, at least 20 different federal agencies have been involved in producing hundreds of fake TV news segments, many of which were "subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government's role in their production." (The story cited one such segment that was broadcast on WHBQ Fox-13 in Memphis.)
In fact, since President Bush took office, the White House has spent at least $254 million on these fake segments and other public-relations ploys to spread positive propaganda about administration policies. Bush has paid lip service to the concept of a free press, saying in January 2005, "there needs to be a nice, independent relationship between the White House and the press, the administration and the press." He also claimed "our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet." But apparently it can't.
One of the concerns about these fake news segments is that they don't reveal the fact that they are paid for using taxpayer money and contain a one-sided, positive take on administration policy. In a now-infamous segment by the Department of Health and Human Services, a PR official named Karen Ryan posed as a reporter interviewing then-Secretary Tommy Thompson. The Government Accountability Office found the agency "designed and executed" her segments "to be indistinguishable from news stories produced by private sector television news organizations."
The Office of Broadcasting Services (yes, there is an actual Office of B.S.) is a branch of the State Department which traditionally acts as a clearinghouse for video from news conferences. That all changed three years ago. In 2002, "with close editorial direction from the White House," the unit started producing "news" segments to support President Bush's rationale for going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. As one senior official told Congress, the phony segments were "powerful strategic tools" used to influence public opinion. In all, the office produced nearly 60 segments, which were then distributed around the world for local stations to use. Though the White House has claimed ignorance of of fake news, a White House memo in January 2003 said segments the State Department disseminated about the liberation of Afghan women were "a prime example" of how "White-House led efforts could facilitate strategic, proactive communications in the war on terror."
The Government Accountability Office is a nonpartisan branch of Congress that investigates government fraud. The GAO criticized the administration's role in creating phony news three times in the past year, saying it constitutes "covert propaganda." The GAO also forbade federal agencies from creating prepackaged news reports "that conceal or do not clearly identify for the television viewing audience that the agency was the source of those materials." The administration's response? The New York Times reports that last Friday, "the Justice Department and the Office of Management and Budget circulated a memorandum instructing all executive branch agencies to ignore the GAO findings."
The spots are produced with taxpayer money by outside public-relations firms. Federal law warns federal agencies from doing exactly that. The U.S. Code states "appropriated funds may not be used to pay a publicity expert unless specifically appropriated for that purpose." However, the GAO, which monitors the law, has no enforcement power. That responsibility lies with Congress and the White House. U.S. federal law also contains the Smith Mundt Act of 1948, which prohibits the spread of government propaganda in the United States (although it allows groups like Voice of America to broadcast it to foreign audiences). According to the Times, State Department officials claim that provision doesn't apply to them either.
This article first appeared on AlterNet.com.