Media in the United States were thought to be immune to such autocratic control, but recent maneuvers by the Bush administration should make Americans wonder how free our press actually is.
Earlier this year, several "journalists" were exposed as propagandists on the White House payroll. We then learned that broadcasters routinely air government-funded video news releases without disclosing their source; the White House has set aside a quarter billion taxpayer dollars to hire public relations firms and infiltrate our news system with fake news.
A handful of media reformers, including my organization Free Press, are leading the campaign to reveal the extent to which government propaganda has violated laws and compromised media newscasts, and press lawmakers and Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez to prosecute those in the White House that have used tax dollars to spread fake news.
Their actions come none too soon. 2005 has become a banner year for propaganda. In early January, the $240,000 Armstrong Williams took from the Department of Education headlined national news. Covertly paying journalists to flack for government policies is not only outrageous, it's illegal. The Williams case sparked a public outcry, compelling more than 40,000 people to write the FCC and demand that the agency launch a probe. Other journalists have since admitted being on the take.
In March 2005, the New York Times ran a front page article documenting widespread government efforts to create official video news releases that are cloaked as real news and broadcast to millions of unsuspecting Americans. At least 20 federal agencies have used this tactic distributing hundreds of government-produced news segments via local TV outlets.
A Sept. 30 report by the Government Accountability Office found the White House violated federal law by buying favorable news coverage in advance of the 2004 elections. This is the fourth time the GAO has uncovered the White House's illegal use of taxpayer money to produce "covert propaganda."
These violations may just form the tip of the iceberg. The administration has more than doubled its public relations budget, tapping a quarter billion in taxpayer dollars since Bush came into office. And while the report is damning, the GAO doesn't have enforcement powers to reveal the full extent of the abuse.
Minority calls for a propaganda probe have sounded a hollow echo through the halls of the Justice Department.
While justice may be blind, presidential appointee Gonzalez is not.
GAO and the Justice Department, the administration's controlling legal authority, have not seen eye to eye on covert propaganda in the past, specifically on the issue of unidentified packaged video news releases. GAO says VNRs are illegal; Justice says the releases are not, so long as they are fact-based. Worseover, Gonzalez's Justice Department appears unwilling to take the next step: a criminal investigation into the administration’s use of millions of taxpayer dollars to push fake news upon Americans.
The official silence speaks volumes. Without popular dissent, an emboldened White House will continue to throw up obstacles to full disclosure. It is now up to the public to do what our elected officials are unwilling or unable to: pressure our government to enforce the law and stop propaganda crimes.