Bush, Government Manipulate Media
Helen Thomas, Hearst White House columnist
POSTED: 9:33 am CST March 31, 2005
President George W. Bush has learned to use the bully pulpit that is the powerful prerogative of all presidents.
But this president has tried to tweak that power in ways that expand the definition of "managed news."
Let's start with his national campaign to change Social Security.
As he travels around the nation to make his pitch that Social Security is in a crisis, the president is limiting his congregation to screened, sanitized audiences. Why does he sermonize on the subject only to carefully selected audiences?
These are people who are vetted to make sure they agree with the president's views. If they pass that test, the local Republican Party or the groups sponsoring the event then issue tickets to the so-called "town meetings" or "conversations with the president."
Asked why the president speaks only to his supporters, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush's intention is to "educate" the people. He probably meant "indoctrinate."
Is this the president of all the people -- or just some of the people who agree with him?
It's bizarre. He's preaching to the choir, hardly the way to "educate" the public.
Controlling his audience was a prime goal of Bush's 2004 presidential campaign, when anti-war protesters were barred from his public appearances. People who openly disagreed with him were hustled out of the hall. We're now seeing the same audience control when Bush speaks about Social Security. The Secret Service and White House aides apparently spend a lot of time trying to handpick those permitted to hear him.
Bush seems satisfied that he has made Social Security a worry to people. That's the goal of his sky-is-falling campaign. But the president is not ready to handle genuine dialogue on the subject or deal with those opposed to his plan to partially privatize the government pension program.
Every administration tries to manage the message that the news media convey to the public about presidential policies, problems and successes. But the Bush White House is pioneering new methods that steer message management into outright government propaganda.
The New York Times on March 13 published an in-depth report on how the administration is cranking up its public relations campaign to manipulate broadcast news by distributing pre-packaged videos prepared by several federal agencies, including the Pentagon.
These videos use phony reporters to tout the administration's position on major issues. Thinly staffed TV stations are only too happy to receive the free videos, which they then pass along to viewers without any acknowledgement that the images and messages are government issue.
Spokespersons for the major TV networks say they would never disseminate government-prepared videos for their news broadcasts. But some financially strapped affiliates apparently are willing to air them without identifying the source.
The government agencies say it is up to the broadcast stations to attribute the origin of the report, if they want to do so.
This practice is far over the ethical line. Shame on both the government agencies and those TV stations.
The Government Accountability Office -- a congressional investigative unit -- has ruled that such government videos represent "covert propaganda." The GAO declared that agencies may not produce pre-packaged news reports "that conceal or do not clearly identify for the television viewing audience" that they were made by the government.
But the White House rejected that opinion and handed reporters a memorandum from the Justice Department and the Office of Management and Budget directing the federal agencies to ignore the GAO verdict.
The memo contended that the GAO did not distinguish between propaganda and "purely informational" news reports and claimed there was no requirement for a federal agency to label its disguised broadcasts.
This is consistent with the administration's other outrageous exercise in propaganda, which took the form of paying a few columnists and broadcasters, such as Armstrong Williams, to promote administration programs.
Williams pushed the Education Department's "No Child Left Behind" program without disclosing that he was on Uncle Sam's payroll.
The president called a halt to paying pundits, saying "there needs to be a nice independent relationship between the White House and the press."
He needs to pay more attention to other administration actions that threaten that independence.
(Helen Thomas can be reached at the e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org