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Bush continues to manipulate opinions
When USA Today revealed that conservative columnist Armstrong Williams took $240,000 to help promote the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush administration displayed appropriate surprise and indignation, condemning such actions while publicly distancing themselves from Williams.
President Bush himself ordered his Cabinet secretaries not to pay media commentators to promote his agenda.
These were apparently new marching orders, judging by the recent disclosure that other syndicated columnists were on the administration's payroll.
The Department of Health and Human Services paid Maggie Gallagher $21,500 and Mike McManus $10,000 to promote the administration's marriage initiatives.
Once is an aberration, twice is a coincidence, but at this point we're seeing evidence of a systematic plan to buy off journalists.
But wait, it gets weirder. At a recent press conference, right after Bush fielded a question about paying journalists, he took a question from a man the Boston Globe reported "has virtually no journalistic background, asks softball questions to the president and his spokesman in the midst of contentious news conferences, and routinely reprints long passages verbatim from official press releases as original news articles on his Web site."
The man is Jeff Gannon and he writes for TalonNews.com, a Web site operated by a Republican Party delegate and political activist from Texas who also runs GOPUSA.com.
For the record, after Bush addressed the embarrassing Williams payola situation, here is the question Gannon asked:
"Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy," Gannon said. "(Minority Leader) Harry Reid was talking about soup lines, and Hillary Clinton was talking about the economy being on the verge of collapse. Yet, in the same breath, they say that Social Security is rock solid and there's no crisis there. How are you going to work - you said you're going to reach out to these people - how are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?"
(The Boston Globe also pointed out that Reid never talked about soup lines; Gannon got it from a joke on Rush Limbaugh's show.)
So at this point we have three documented cases of the administration paying off journalists to promote their agenda and one instance of issuing a fake journalist credentials and allowing him into a presidential press conferences.
If you accept our Founding Fathers' premise that the press is independent and exists to discover and report the truth, the Bush administration's behavior is unethical, dangerous and disrespectful.
Following the American model of a free press, deceiving and manipulating the press is, in effect, deceiving and manipulating every one of us.
In fact, Bush has been clear about his desire to sidestep the press and present his message raw.
"I'm mindful of the filter through which some news travels, and somehow you just got to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people," Bush said in October 2003.
According to analysis by congressional Democrats, the current administration spent $88 million last year on PR, and $250 million total.
The administration used some of this money to pay off journalists; Williams' contract was part of a $1 million deal between the Department of Education and the Ketchum public relations firm.
They've also used it to produce fake news spots promoting their legislative agenda, spots that have been judged illegal violations of anti-propaganda laws. What other public relations campaigns has all that tax-payer money funded?
As Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif) recently pointed out during Condoleezza Rice's confirmation hearings, the Iraq war was sold to the American people like a product.
White House Chief of Staff Andy Card once remarked on the timing of the war, "You don't roll out a new product in the summer."
Selling war and public policy is a natural for the PR industry, which exists to manage public opinion - or, in franker terms, control our thoughts. While we're certainly used to corporate propaganda telling us to accept the capitalist system and consume, the Bush civil sales pitches go way back to the roots of public relations.
Government control of the public mind was a formative aspect of the PR industry when it emerged in the 1920s. Edward Bernays, the grandfather of public relations, wrote in 1928, "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society."
The idea is that because America is a free and open society, not a police state with an authoritarian regime; the government can't use violence to force the public to comply. So the only option is to control how the public thinks, a process iconic journalist Walter Lippmann called the "manufacture of consent."
Over the past four years, the Bush administration has resorted to out-right propaganda, going as far as buying off those who would question, to manufacture consent. As evidenced by the current $10 million dollar advertising blitz pushing their Social Security plan, Americans should prepare for more manipulation over the next four years.