America's leadership is waging a war
against the journalistic standards and practices that underpin not only a free press but our democracy. The Fourth Estate is withering under an unprecedented White House assault
designed to intimidate, smear and discredit investigative journalism — and allow the president and his political cronies to lie with impunity.
On December 1, White House spokesman Scott McClellan called the U.S. “a leader when it comes to promoting and advocating a free and independent media around the world.” He added, “We’ve made our views very clear when it comes to freedom of the press.” Indeed, it's clear that the Bush administration doesn't believe in it, nor do they believe in our system of checks and balances that holds leaders accountable to the public.
If left unchecked this White House will continue to:
- manipulate the media "message" by producing propaganda, putting journalists on the government payroll and tightly scripting all public events;
- dismiss all dissenting views in the media as biased and politically motivated;
- undermine public trust in journalism using the right-wing “echo chamber” to sow hostility toward reporters who challenge the official line; and
- eliminate access to information making it nearly impossible for journalists to investigate vast areas of the federal government.
The Bush administration is more inhospitable to truth and an informed citizenry than any before it. In fact, the administration seeks the opposite: a public that buys a carefully constructed myth
over reality. This deception has manifest in seven lines of attack:
- Infiltrating public broadcasting with party loyalists
- Manufacturing fake news and propaganda
- Bribing journalists to flack for the administration
- Gutting the Freedom of Information Act
- Deceiving media (and the U.S. public) about Iraq
- Stifling dissent within mainstream media
- Consolidating media control into the hands of the elite
The damage already done is reflected in plummeting public faith
in reporters and the unrelenting stream of lies flowing from the White House into mainstream news.
This crisis can be attributed in part to the failure of big media corporations and some journalists to meet the basic responsibilities of the press in a democratic society. But the Bush administration's wholesale assault on a free press is also to blame. This White House has gone well beyond the cynical maneuvers of past administrations and implemented a scheme to tear down journalism and erode civil liberties.Free Press
(my colleagues and I) has launched a campaign to defend democracy from the war on diverse and independent media. The campaign will exert grassroots and lobbying pressure to implement policies that hold our leadership accountable and ensure that abuses of press freedom are not repeated by this and future administrations.
With an unprecedented campaign to undermine and stifle independent journalism, Bush & Co. have demonstrated astonishing contempt for the Constitution. This report shows the scope and intensity of the administration's assault on press freedoms by illustrating seven areas of abuse.1. Infiltrating Public Broadcasting with Political Operatives
White House loyalists from within the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have launched a crusade
to remake PBS, NPR and other public media into official mouthpieces.
This campaign was led by Karl Rove confidant Kenneth Tomlinson, who left the CPB board in disgrace after a recent Inspector General's report
found he violated federal law to monitor and influence PBS programming and used "political tests" to hire Patricia Harrison, a former co-chair of the Republican Party, as president of the agency.
The Inspector General levels a scathing indictment of Tomlinson's back-room maneuvering to manipulate content but it stops short of revealing the extent to which the White House orchestrated his efforts.
Missing from the report is email traffic between Tomlinson and Rove
— provided to the IG by investigators at the State Department. Also missing is a "separate investigative report
, along with specific evidence indicating possible wrongdoing," that the IG made available to the CPB board. This evidence, which may reveal the White House's hand in manipulations of public broadcasting programming, sits under lock and key at the heavily partisan CPB.
While Tomlinson is gone, he left behind a cast of GOP operatives who are reluctant to release the potentially damaging information. Newly elected CPB Chairwoman Cheryl Halpern and Vice Chairwoman Gay Hart Gaines are both major fundraisers for GOP candidates and causes. New CPB President Harrison has stacked CPB offices with former State Department officers skilled in "public diplomacy" and propaganda
.2. Manufacturing Fake News
The Bush administration has mounted a widespread effort
to produce "video news releases," or VNRs, which are broadcast as real news to millions of unsuspecting Americans. At least 20 federal agencies have distributed this propaganda.
The White House has spent more than twice any other administration to create counterfeit news. In 2004 alone, the Bush administration spent $90 million on PR contracts, drawn from a $254 million taxpayer slush fund
set up to manufacture White House-friendly propaganda.
Thus far, four separate Government Accountability Office investigations have found the White House violated laws
that prohibit government use of taxpayer money to spread "covert propaganda" without attribution. Objectionable activities include a video news release where PR flack Karen Ryan gives the Bush tutoring program "an A-plus"; and commissioned newspaper articles that praised the Education Department's role in promoting "science literacy." Readers were never informed of the government's role in placing the article, which appeared in numerous small newspapers around the country.
The GAO's pronouncements
against un-attributed propaganda have gone unheeded. Press officers for several of the federal agencies in question recently told the New York Times
that disclosure requirements did not apply to government-made television news segments, which they insisted are "factual, politically neutral and useful to viewers."
On September 30, the GAO correctly shot down that sophistry, saying that pre-packaged government news is inherently not factual because "the essential fact of attribution is missing."
While some in Congress have taken up the call for more investigations, 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 campaign to covertly manufacture news and manipulate public opinion in favor of presidential policies.3. Bribing Journalists to Flack for the Administration
The administration has paid pundits to sing its praises. Earlier this year, TV commentator Armstrong Williams
pocketed $240,000 in taxpayer money to laud Bush's education policies. Three other journalists have since been discovered on the White House dole; and Williams admits that he has "no doubt" that other paid Bush shills are still on the loose
The administration has even exported these tactics. According to the Los Angeles Times
, the U.S. military is now secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops.
Over the past five years, the White House has set aside more than a quarter billion dollars to hire public relations firms to infiltrate our news system with fake news.
A report by the Government Accountability Office found the White House violated federal law by buying favorable news coverage from Williams in advance of the 2004 elections. Michael Massing wrote
in the New York Review of Books
that the GAO report "presents chilling evidence of the campaign that officials in Washington
have been waging against a free and independent press."
The GAO has issued scathing reports on the White House's illegal use of taxpayer money to produce "covert propaganda" on four separate occasions. But Attorney General Alberto Gonzales refuses to prosecute these crimes. The official silence speaks volumes. Without legal recourse
, an emboldened White House continues to manipulate the news and deceive Americans.4. Gutting the Freedom of Information Act
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) enshrines the public's right to access government records. In the past five years, FOIA has been gutted by an administration that would rather cloak its operations from public scrutiny.
In 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a chilling memorandum
advising federal agencies that the Justice Department would defend their decisions to deny FOIA requests.
Many have since taken action to fend off public requests for disclosure. Since President Bush entered office, there has been a more than 75 percent increase in the amount of government information classified as secret each year — from 9 million in 2001 to 16 million by 2004.
Yet an even more aggressive form of government information control has gone un-enumerated and often unrecognized in the Bush era, as government agencies have restricted access to unclassified information in libraries, archives, Web sites, and official databases, according to Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy
at the Federation of American Scientists.
"Less of a goal-directed policy than a bureaucratic reflex, the widespread clampdown on formerly public information reflects a largely inarticulate concern about ‘security,'" Aftergood writes
. "It also accords neatly with the Bush administration's preference for unchecked executive authority."
In their 2004 report
, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press provide a rundown of actions taken by public officials to turn basic government information into state secrets. RCFP executive director Lucy Dalglish wrote that many Bush administration actions in fighting the war against terrorism were designed to undermine FOIA. Dalglish and her journalist members hoped that the government's post-September 11 move toward non-disclosure on all matters would be viewed as temporary or emergency measures.
"Unfortunately, that has not been the case," Dalglish reported. "Led by secrecy-loving officials in the executive branch, secrecy in the United States government is now the norm."
The restrictions have now grown so tight that the American Society of Newspaper Editors
last fall issued a "call to arms" to its members, urging them to "demand answers in print and in court" to stop this "deeply disturbing" trend.5. Lying to the Press (and the Public) about the Iraq War
The White House saw the battle for domestic popular opinion as one of the main fronts in the war in Iraq. With the help of a compliant media, truth became the first casualty in their campaign to whip up support.
Eight months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, top level British intelligence officers reported that the White House had told them that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed" to fit the administration's aim of removing Saddam Hussein.
This proved to be the pattern throughout the run-up to the war — during Bush's 2003 State of the Union Address, in Condoleeza Rice's congressional testimony, and throughout Colin Powell's presentation to the United Nations about weapons of mass destruction — as officials manipulated and fabricated information to make their case.
Later, when this faulty intelligence was disputed, the administration chose to attack those reporting the truth rather than admit to their own lies and misinformation. As Frank Rich recently wrote in the New York Times, the administration's "web of half-truths and falsehoods used to sell the war did not happen by accident; it was woven by design and then foisted on the public by a P.R. operation built expressly for that purpose in the White House."
Among other things, this P.R. campaign involved:
- dressing up evidence provided by unreliable sources from within the Iraqi National Congress;
- concealing from Congress intelligence that disputed links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime; and
- exaggerating WMD claims made by a "mentally unstable" Iraqi defector.
As their deception begins to unravel before the public, Bush, Cheney and their White House colleagues have "stayed the course," choosing to repeat past untruths in the hope that mainstream media will again err on the side of authority and present the administration's lies unchallenged.6. Stifling Dissenting Views in the Media
The Bush administration has established a hierarchy for journalists seeking interviews with top administration officials, granting access to those networks and newspapers that give the White House the most favorable coverage. At the same time, they've stonewalled those who seek to challenge administration talking points.
The White House sends advance teams of handlers to all Bush events to screen audience members and reporters for loyalty to the president and his policies. They eject possible "troublemakers" who might disrupt their contrived public forum.
The White House Press Office turned press conferences into parodies by seating a friendly faux journalist, former male escort Jeff Gannon
, amid reporters and then steering questions to him when tough issues arose. They refuse to answer tough questioners such as veteran journalist Helen Thomas, effectively silencing reporters who might challenge the president or his aides.
The administration's efforts have been amplified by a disciplined and well-organized "echo chamber" of blogs, newspapers, newsletters, journals and radio and televison broadcasters under the influence of conservatives and the Christian right. Often working hand in glove with the White House, these outlets systematically discredit mainstream media that question the official line. This criticism works it way from blogs and other fringe Web sites up the media food chain into radio talk show banter — from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Mark Levin, and Laura Ingraham — until it's picked up by more mainstream news outlets.
As Michael Massing writes in his recent report
on journalism "an unscrupulous critic can spread exaggerated or erroneous claims instantaneously to thousands of people, who may, in turn, repeat them to millions more on talk radio programs, on cable television, or on more official ‘news' Web sites." This echo chamber effect has effectively placed White House talking points once considered absurd at the center of media discourse; all the while dismissing as "biased" or "liberal" journalists who question their accuracy.
"We were biased," veteran TV journalist Bill Moyers
recently explained about his PBS news show NOW
, which came under frequent attack from the right. "Biased … in favor of uncovering the news that powerful people wanted to keep hidden."
"Conflicts of interest at the Department of Interior, secret meetings between Vice President Cheney and the oil industry, backdoor shenanigans by lobbyists at the FCC, corruption in Congress, neglect of wounded veterans returning from Iraq, Pentagon cost overruns, the manipulation of intelligence leading to the invasion of Iraq… We were way ahead of the news curve on these stories," Moyers said, "and the administration turned its hit men loose on us."
It's no surprise, then, that an administration that is willing to browbeat dissenting views in the media would seek also to attack so many other fundamental acheivements of our democracy.7. Consolidating Media Control in the Hands of the Elite
The Bush administration has worked with the most powerful media corporations – like News Corp
and Clear Channel
– in an effort to rewrite media ownership laws in a manner that accelerates consolidation and monopoly control of information.
In 1983, 50 corporations owned a majority of the news media. In 1992, fewer than two dozen companies owned 90 percent of the news media. In 2003, the number fell to a total of six. The escalated consolidation of media
has precipitated the collapse of journalistic values and the rise of profit-driven "infotainment" and "celebrity news." Driven by bottom-line concerns, corporate media executives have cut overseas newsrooms from their payrolls. As a result, international reporting dropped nearly 80 percent in the past two decades.
History has shown that the relaxation of media ownership rules always leads to more market consolidation and less competition and diversity in news. Greased by extensive campaign contributions and pressured by intensive lobbying, Washington policymakers have abandoned antitrust enforcement and pursued policies to encourage greater media concentration.
The Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will announce plans to rewrite the ownership rules soon – it could happen as early as February. Unless the public mobilizes to oppose efforts to make Big Media even bigger, the FCC will pass rules that would unleash a new wave of media consolidation and allow conglomerates to swallow up hundreds of independent media outlets.Conclusion
In a famous 1945 opinion, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black said that "the First Amendment rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition of a free society." In other words, a free press is the sine qua non
of the entire American Constitution and republican experiment.
Our democracy demands a diverse and independent media. The Bush administration's attack on the foundations of self-government requires a response of similar caliber. Unless lawmakers, the press and the public mobilize to hold the White House accountable for all its assaults on journalism, such abuses will be repeated in the future by this and other administrations. We can reform our media
to become a servant of democracy that is stronger than the lies of George Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. But we need to act now
while the damage of the last five years can still be undone.