Covert Propaganda

There’s a substantial piece in today’s NY Times about the current Bush administration’s unprecedented efforts to sway public opinion by distributing fake news reports to the major televsion networks, and by putting pundits on the payroll. Fake TV news in particular seems to be a favorite ploy of this administration–remember the RNC last summer when pretend reporters “interviewed” people on the convention floor?

To date, the Bush administration has spent over $250M on a PR firm which helps them to produce the “Video New Releases”. The VNRs are then distributed to TV news stations, who often run the pieces unedited and without attribution. Even worse, stations will sometimes redo the narrations using local talent, which really makes them seem like legitimate new pieces. The Times reports that the administration was called on this practice last year by the GAO:

Yet in three separate opinions in the past year, the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress that studies the federal government and its expenditures, has held that government-made news segments may constitute improper “covert propaganda” even if their origin is made clear to the television stations.

The next part of the story is a little strange, because there’s no shortage of diehard Bush apologists among the conservative babbling class. And yet, the Bush administration still felt the need to buy a little help. In January, we found out about three pundits on the Bush payroll. First there was Armstrong Williams, a conservative columnist who was given $240,000 by the administration to promote No Child Left Behind.

Then came Maggie Gallagher, another conservative columnist and talking head. Gallagher had previously garnered a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to promote Bush’s $300M pro-marriage initiative. She then received $20,000 from the Bush administration in 2002 and 2003 for writing a report titled “Can Government Strengthen Marriage?” Often appeared on television backing the “take marriage rights away from gay people” amendment.

And then a few weeks later came the story that was by far the funniest of the lot. James Guckert, a.k.a Jeff Gannon: a pretend journalist from a fake news agnecy who was somehow given a Whitehouse press pass under a false name. Known for lobbing incredibly softball questions to Bush during the all-too-rare presidential press conferences. The blogs have latched on to this story in particular because of Guckert’s alleged other line of work, which was to run gay military-themed prostitution services and pornography web sites (and he wasn’t just the president, he got in on the action himself). And perhaps it’s partly because all the images here are X-rated that this story didn’t hit big outside of the internets.

Here’s a typical example of a Guckert pitch to Bush:

“Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy: Harry Reid, who’s 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. You’ve 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?”

Tough question, Jeff. Tough, but fair.

Cyril Rugby is cyberkrunk’s (pretend) senior political correspondent.

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