Richard Nixon got it right when he said in his memoirs that modern presidents “must try to master the art of manipulating the media … at the same time they must avoid at all costs the charge of trying to manipulate the media.” Following his counsel takes real deftness, however, and when lots of administration officials try to manipulate the press, it’s inevitable that some will make a hash of it and expose the puppet strings. Hence the recent spate of media infamies known by the names Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher, Jeff Gannon, and Karen Ryan.
President Bush seems to recognize that these cases can’t be defended. But he’s also as determined as any predecessor to gain what he can from government-paid P.R. and more intent than anyone since Nixon on the related mission of bringing big and critical mainstream media to heel. (What other President would have said, as Bush did after Senator John Kerry cited media reports in one of their debates, “In all due respect, I’m not so sure it’s credible to quote leading news organizations.”?) It helps only Bush that Webloggers, Web-based magazines, and trade publications have outpaced traditional Washington news bureaus on several big bad journalism stories. Among them: Dan Rather’s reliance on fake documents in his “60 Minutes” story on Bush’s military duty-dodging, which PowerLine. com led, and the exposure of Gannon’s provisional membership in the White House press corps, which bloggers forced traditional media to address.
Thus far at least, Bush has gained lots of recognition in mainstream media—MSM in blogger-speak—for deploring pseudojournalism. At the same time, he’s been quietly making it easier for more than 5,000 federal employees—who work in jobs involving public relations—to serve up what by the common man’s standard is propaganda. Having deplored media manipulation, in other words, the President has gone back to doing it.
His problem/opportunity began in January when USA Today broke the story of the U.S. Department of Education’s $241,000 pay-for-play deal with African- American commentator Williams to promote the President’s top education initiative, the No Child Left Behind act. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan deflected questions to the Education Department. Bush said nothing for two weeks, then offered only a bromide: “There needs to be a nice independent relationship between the White House and the press.”
In April, Bush expressed the same sentiment at a news editors conference in Washington and was again widely quoted. What he said next, however, the MSM mainly missed. It is “legal” for government news agencies to make video news releases (VNR), Bush told the editors, “but it’s incumbent upon people who use them to say ‘This news clip was produced by the federal government.’” In other words, it’s up to the news outlets that use the puffery—not the government P.R. shops that make it—to identify its source. (It is the case that VNR’s and direct satellite news feeds to local TV stations have been used in a similar fashion by prior administrations, though they were on the wane during the Clinton administration.)
It’s hard to imagine a local news anchor fessing up. It’s even harder when you recall that the original rap on government VNR’s was that they were produced with agency credits deliberately made easy to delete. Behind Bush’s new assertion about “legal” government propagandizing lay an old problem for MSM, made larger by a new opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. In brief, policing of government propaganda relies on a 1913 law against spending taxpayers’ money “to pay a publicity expert.” In addition, appropriations bills include a boilerplate warning against unauthorized spending for “publicity or propaganda purposes.”
The problem: No agency monitors this or enforces the prohibition. And Congress hasn’t defined the terms. About all that a lawmaker can do right now is get a ruling from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on specific material. When asked by a member of Congress to review some VNR’s, GAO Comptroller General David Walker opined in February that he considered one made about Medicare and another about the Office of National Drug Control Policy to be “covert propaganda.”
Why? “In neither case did the agency include any statement or other indication in its news stories that disclosed to the television viewing audience … that the agency wrote and produced those news stories,” Walker wrote. Susan Poling, associate counsel of the GAO, observed, too, that “we noticed that these are not isolated practices … that it’s really across the government.” Walker then sent a memo to government agencies reminding them of the “constraints imposed by the publicity or propaganda prohibition.”
Walker’s warning received more press attention than its quashing did, when the memo was essentially voided on a Friday afternoon—a dormant news slot—in March. It was then that the President’s lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) sent a memo of its own to the general counsels of all federal agencies. In this memo OLC principal deputy Steven Bradbury declared that VNR’s are a legitimate means of “informing the public of the facts about a federal program,” whether or not their government sponsor is identified. The ruling might be different, Bradbury wrote, if the government’s public relations’ efforts included “advocacy of a political viewpoint.”
But who is going to determine whether the P.R. is factual or it is advocating “a political viewpoint,” and thus qualifies as propaganda? Bradbury, who reminded agency lawyers that the OLC’s order trumps the GAO’s, didn’t elaborate on this point. This means the Bush administration will be the arbiter. The ruling is certain to be used to defend other forms of government self-advocacy, including agency Web sites and promotional material for new programs, such as Medicare prescription drug benefit and the Clear Skies initiative.
The Government’s Spin Machines
All this debate about propaganda—not to mention the discovery of paid practitioners—made a lot of reporters start to wonder about what’s going on in all of these government agency P.R. offices. It turns out that contracted-out government P.R. is booming, despite the congressional prohibitions. The Clinton administration spent $128 million on outside public relations in its first term, compared with $250 million during Bush’s first term, according to an investigation done by USA Today. (The Congressional Research Service, which counts advertising outlays as part of its total figure, puts the amount at one billion dollars, but lacks a comparative Clinton figure.)
Employment of public relations personnel within government agencies is up nine percent since September 2000, from 4,327 to 4,703 people, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management. But that figure does not include political appointees who are not fully counted in any reliable tally. Enough of them, however, turn up, in what’s called the Plum Book—a directory of senior executive branch officials and their top career and political subordinates—to show the same upward trend. In Jimmy Carter’s presidency, for example, the Commerce Department had two political P.R. jobs, according to the 1978 Plum Book. By the first Bush presidency, that number was up to 11. In this Bush administration, that department has grown to employ 27 people.
Certifying the actual figures gets tougher, since these numbers suffer from the iceberg effect, according to Luke Hester, a senior career public affairs official who retired last year from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There’s a lot of folks connected to these operations who just aren’t visible in any personnel flow chart. At the EPA, for example, which is a political hotspot in any administration, the most recent Plum Book shows 11 political P.R. appointees. Hester estimated that the actual number of people who got their jobs through political connections and serve political ends by working in P.R. at EPA is closer to 50.
Numbers do count, it turns out, when politically connected government agency P.R. systems create burdensome approval networks that slow down potentially negative stories. These systems actually slow down everything except what the administration wants to get out. Hester said that’s one of the main pastimes at EPA, where “how fast they respond depends on whether they want to get the answer out or sandbag it—or need to check with the White House.” Among other pastimes are maintaining and burnishing the agency’s Web site—a good-news billboard, clearing speeches and congressional testimony, building support among interest groups for EPA programs and fielding reporters’ questions.
A large part of the business done by these offices is the communications efforts that are designed to get information directly to the public by going over the heads, around the backs, and between the legs of MSM. Among the tactics, Hester said, are briefings to which only supportive reporters are invited; teleconferences for reporters in which there is a one-question rule (hence no follow-ups) and, when the daily beat reporters grow hostile, leaks to outlets outside of Washington.
The proliferation of bloggers, news channels, Web news sites, and trade and specialty publications gives P.R. officials more options. Web sites and bloggers are great outlets for spin because they’re understaffed and grateful. They also move faster than MSM and are therefore excellent as agenda-setters. MSM news cycles still tend to be daily, and that allows reporters time to check out spin more thoroughly. And while they still enjoy an advantage in numbers, MSM reporters tend to be older; their ranks, in many cases, decimated by Washington bureau cuts.
So it might have come as a surprise to MSM journalists when PowerLine. com led the campaign that took down Dan Rather for flawed journalism. MSM are not supposed to be surprised, especially in their bailiwicks, but that’s been happening a lot recently. When Talkingpointsmemo.com exposed racist remarks made by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and other bloggers took up the story, MSM had to quickly move to cover this as a news story. And they were just as surprised when bloggers forced CNN news chief Eason Jordan to resign because of his odd claim that American soldiers in Iraq had targeted journalists. For that matter, Dailykos. com, Wonkette.com, and Kausfiles.com have carried more information about the administration’s pseudoreporting than MSM.
Given the trajectory, it’s not hard to imagine what’s ahead on the propaganda front. And it does not bode well for journalism. What follows are a few media movements to watch for:
- The broadcast industry is too loosely organized, ethically challenged—and strapped for money—to stop the unacknowledged airing of government P.R. Expect this habit to continue and, likely, to grow.
- Hiring campaign strategists, pollsters and ad firms to do government P.R. is no doubt ahead, if not already happening. The presidency is a permanent campaign now, and besides, campaign pros need work in the off-season.
- Surreptitiously financed bloggers who devour “spin” are coming (in fact, some most likely already exist), whether financially supported by the government or interest groups.
- Criticism of MSM will grow, as more news gatherers work from the outside rather than as MSM insiders. Some criticism will be dead-on.
- Propaganda will seem more plausible, as MSM seem less credible.
- Audiences will fracture more into red and blue perspectives and then select the news media option that most closely represents their point of view. It’s already a big selling point for digital news. And no matter what side a reader, viewer or listener is on, many will end up agreeing with President Bush when he says, “In all due respect, I’m not so sure it’s credible to quote leading news organizations.”
Perhaps the most worrisome thing of all is that future administrations will know this and act accordingly.
Frank Greve is the assistant news editor in the Washington, D.C. bureau of Knight Ridder Newspapers.