Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A Taxpayer Slush Fund

This White House won't hesitate funneling considerable taxpayer sums to fund Bush-friendly public relations campaigns. At least $300,000 went to prominent pundits in exchange for their on-air and in-print allegiance. Another "journalist" received pay from an organization allied with prominent Texas Republicans an eyelash length removed from the Bush campaign, while simultaneously publishing "news" articles that contained full passages lifted verbatim from White House press releases. And in dozens of cases, federal agencies succeeded in infiltrating local newscasts with phony reports promoting the president's policies.

Thus far, three separate Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigations have found these actions violated laws that prohibit government use of taxpayer money to spread "covert propaganda." But the GAO's pronouncements have gone unheeded. Press officers for several of the federal agencies in question recently told The New York Times that these prohibitions did not apply to government-made television news segments, which they insisted are "factual, politically neutral and useful to viewers." And on March 11, the Justice Department and Office of Management and Budget circulated a memorandum instructing all executive branch agencies to ignore the GAO findings.

And while some in Congress have taken up the call for more investigation, they have yet to look beyond isolated incidents. As more evidence comes to light we're able to assemble a case against this administration that goes much further, involving a systemic pattern of abuse to quietly manipulate the Fourth Estate and sway public opinion in favor of presidential policies.

In 2004 alone, the Bush administration spent more than $88 million in taxpayer money on PR contracts, drawn from a slush fund that's amassed more than $250 million in tax dollars over the past four years. The three public relations firms that received the most in federal contracts from this fund are Ketchum Incorporated ($97 million) Matthews Media Group ($52 million) and Fleishman Hillard ($41 million). It's unclear exactly how much public largesse went to create "covert propaganda;" many of these companies are refusing to divulge whether they used millions in taxpayer dollars to deploy faux journalists to flack for the policies favored by the president and his cronies.

The White House has paid people to pose as television reporters praising the benefits of the new Medicare law, which the administration had proffered midst the Bush campaign to win votes from elderly Americans with promises of lowering the costs of their prescription medicines.

Faux-journalist Karen Ryan became infamous in media circles for fronting this series of Bush-friendly "video news releases" that duped local television newscasters broadcast across the country as real news. The Medicare bill wasn't the only controversial piece of legislation that the Bush administration turned to Ryan for help supporting. She also "reported" for Bush policy in a 2003 video news release that sang the praises of the No Child Left Behind Act. On a similar front the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has produced eight Video News Releases that the GAO found violated laws against undisclosed publicity and propaganda.

Now comes news that the administration has set up a "war room" inside the Treasury Department to pump out information to sell President Bush's Social Security plan. The internal, taxpayer-funded effort will run a "political campaign" replete with television advertisements, grass-roots organizing and lobbying from business and other groups that support the Bush plan. It's unclear whether video news releases are a part of the White House's Social Security plan, but over the last four years, at least 20 federal agencies have used this tactic distributing hundreds of government-produced television news segments via local news outlets.

The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 (22 U.S.C. ' 1461), forbids the domestic dissemination of U.S. government authored or developed propaganda or "official news" deliberately designed to influence public opinion or policy. The law singles out materials that serve "a solely partisan purpose." In the past, the GAO has found that administration agencies violated this and other federal restrictions when they disseminated editorials and newspaper articles written by the government or its contractors without disclosing the conflict of interest.

By law, Americans have the right demand transparency of their government, especially as regards use of tax dollars. But one-party rule in Washington, combined with the recent demise of the special-prosecutor statute and ongoing efforts to defang the Freedom of Information Act, has stripped Americans of any means to uncover the extremes to which this White House has gone.

1. Introduction: Ghosts in the Media Machine
2. Jeff Gannon's White House Maneuver
3. Armstrong Williams and the White House Payola Trail
4. Propagandists on the Pentagon Payroll
5. The Demise of FOIA and the Special Prosecutor


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