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Subverting the press with propaganda on the rise

David Shaw/LA Times | January 17 2005

President BUSH has repeatedly attributed the 9/11 terrorist attacks — and, for that matter, virtually all hostility directed toward the United States by the Islamic world — to their envy and resentment of our way of life, our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. "They … hate America because we love freedom," he said in Minneapolis 10 months to the day after 9/11.

This is, of course, self-serving claptrap that ignores the reality that Islamic extremism is, to a great degree, a reaction to "several decades of specific policy disagreements with the U.S.," as James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly told me last year.

But as appalled as I am by Bush's willful misreading of history, I'm even more upset by his hypocrisy. He seems determined to destroy the very foundations of American democracy that he insists are our bulwark against our enemies and the cause of our enemies' hatred of us. He launched a preemptive war against Iraq by lying to the American public. He helped create an atmosphere in which the torture of enemy prisoners in violation of the Geneva accords was tolerated, if not encouraged. And his administration has consistently tried to subvert our free press by masking government propaganda as legitimate news and opinion.

The most recent example of the Bush administration's attempts to manipulate the media — and the American public — came to light about 10 days ago, when USA Today disclosed that the Education Department, working through a public relations firm, had paid an African American media pundit $240,000 to promote the president's No Child Left Behind Act with minority groups.

Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator, promoted the law on his syndicated television program and in his syndicated newspaper column without disclosing that he was being paid by the Department of Education to do so.

This violates the most basic journalistic ethics, and Tribune Media Services, which syndicated Williams' column (and which is a subsidiary of Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times), announced that it would stop syndicating his column.

Because several federal laws prohibit the use of taxpayers' money to influence congressional action or polices of the U.S. government, prominent members of Congress are now demanding an investigation.

In a week when the big media story has been the report on how CBS and "60 Minutes" screwed up a story on Bush's National Guard service, I've been surprised by the relatively little attention given to the Armstrong Williams story. This is not to minimize in any way the shamefully unprofessional behavior of CBS. But the Bush administration has behaved even more shamefully — consistently — and used our tax dollars to do so.

Continuing illegal activity

The Williams case was not the administration's first effort at covert propaganda.

Shortly after 9/11, reports began to circulate that the administration's Office of Strategic Influence was planning to plant false news stories in the international media. In 2002, amid much controversy, the office was shut down. But as my Times colleague Mark Mazzetti subsequently reported, "much of OSI's mission — using information as a tool of war — has been assumed by other offices throughout the U.S. government."

In fact, Mazzetti wrote last December, "a young Marine spokesman near Fallouja appeared on CNN [on Oct. 14] and made a dramatic announcement" signaling the beginning of "the long-awaited offensive to retake the Iraqi city."

But the Fallouja offensive did not start until three weeks later. The CNN announcement, Mazzetti said, was "an elaborate psychological operation … intended to dupe insurgents in Fallouja and allow U.S. commanders to see how guerrillas would react if they believed U.S. troops were entering the city."

This, Mazzetti wrote, was "part of a broad effort underway within the Bush administration to use information to its advantage in the war on terrorism."

Although using misinformation or disinformation to deceive one's enemies has long been an accepted military tactic, deceiving our own news media and the American public in the process is quite another matter.

The Bush administration has not limited its use of propaganda to the battlefield.

Early last year, several news stations around the country broadcast a story on plans for a White House advertising campaign on the dangers of drug abuse. But the "journalist" who reported this story was not a journalist, and his report was actually produced by the Bush administration.

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, ruled that this amounted to illegal "covert propaganda."

Last May, the GAO said the Department of Health and Human Services violated two federal laws when it created fake news footage to support the administration's Medicare drug benefit bill.

Last week, the GAO criticized the Bush administration for distributing prepackaged "news" reports, including a "suggested live intro" for local anchors to read, interviews with Washington officials and what the Washington Post called "a closing that mimics a typical broadcast news signoff."

TV stations knew these "stories" were put together by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, but viewers didn't.

"What is objectionable about these," said Susan Poling, managing associate general counsel at the GAO, "is the fact that the viewer has no idea their tax dollars are being used to write and produce this video segment."

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), calls it "particularly outrageous that the government continues to engage in this sort of illegal activity despite the fact that the GAO has said that it is illegal.

"The question now is how extensively has the administration used propaganda to shore up its controversial policies," Sloan said. "Did it pay any commentators to speak out in support of the Patriot Act? Is it paying anyone now to convince the public that Social Security is in crisis?"

Shaping the news

In an effort to answer these questions, CREW last week filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests with 22 government agencies, asking for copies of every contract they have with public relations firms.

All administrations try to manipulate the news media and shape the nation's news agenda. They do it by controlling access to the president and other top officials, by timing their announcements, by leaking selectively and — like any other institution or agency, public or private — by trying to put the best face on everything they do.

By the sheer force of his personality — and the prevailing mores of the time — President Kennedy was able to keep news of his philandering out of the media during his lifetime and well beyond.

President Reagan used his charisma — and sophisticated Madison Avenue advertising and public relations techniques — to so cow the news media that when Mark Hertsgaard wrote his book on Reagan and the press, he titled it "On Bended Knee."

But few administrations have actually tried to subvert the news media and use taxpayer dollars to mislead the American public as blatantly as has the Bush administration. When you combine those efforts with Bush's record of media avoidance — he had fewer news conferences in his first term than any first-term president since William Howard Taft — it becomes clear that for all his speechifying about American freedoms, he has no interest in the unfettered operation of a free press properly serving a free society.

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