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A Snake-Oil President

Having quadrupled the PR budget of any previous administration, the Bush Team has broken federal propaganda laws on numerous occasions.
 
 
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Treating policy as product to be marketed to the electorate is no great stretch for a president who fashions himself the CEO of White House Inc. But in its zeal to promote sales of the Bush brand, this administration has crossed the line that separates honest brokers from snake oil salesmen.

Bush and company sold Americans defective goods in clear violation of federal law. Yet Attorney General Alberto Gonzales hasn't budged. Instead, the man charged with enforcing our laws has tasked his army of lawyers to throw a legal shield around the White House, telling the administration to ignore investigations by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which repeatedly has blasted Team Bush for using taxpayer money to fund "covert propaganda."

In its latest report, issued on Sept. 30, the GAO's federal auditors scolded the White House for squandering American tax dollars to hire fake news reporters and unleash a pre-packaged new blitz in advance of the 2004 elections. The GAO found the White House violated the law by hiring pundit Armstrong Williams to shower praise on Bush's education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, while interviewing administration officials on the air.

The GAO also uncovered a previously undisclosed case in which the Education Department commissioned an article carried by several newspapers that extolled the administration's role in promoting science education. Readers were not informed of the government's role in the writing of the article.

The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 forbids the domestic dissemination of government-authored propaganda or "official news" deliberately designed to influence public opinion or policy. The law singles out materials that serve "a solely partisan purpose." The GAO has now found on at least four separate occasions that administration agencies violated this and other federal restrictions when they disseminated news written by the government or its contractors without disclosing the conflict of interest.

In 2003, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy produced for local newscasts eight "video news releases" that praised Bush's plan for preventing teen drug use. They were beamed into more than 22 million households via nearly 300 local television stations. Around the same time, the Department of Health and Human Services contracted PR industry professional Karen Ryan to pose as a local news reporter giving the administration's Medicare plan "an A-plus." The resulting fake news segment was broadcast by more than 40 local newscasts. In both cases, these video news releases broke the law by not disclosing the government as their source.

It's more than likely that the White House has set other propaganda efforts loose in the media mainstream. We just don't know about them yet. A January report by members of the House Committee on Government Reform noted that this administration has set aside a quarter billion in taxpayer dollars for similar propaganda efforts -- spending money on PR at four times the rate of any previous administration.

While the evidence is damning, the GAO lacks the enforcement powers to reveal the full extent of the abuse. The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel has final say over executive branch legal matters. And GAO and Justice have not seen eye to eye on covert propaganda in the past, specifically on the issue of unidentified video news releases. Justice says that all the government's publicity is legal, because they have been fact-based. DOJ advised executive agencies that they could ignore the GAO since the legal prohibition on propaganda does not apply to government-made television news segments that are "factual, politically neutral and useful to viewers."

The GAO's most recent investigation correctly shot down that sophistry, saying that pre-packaged government news is inherently false because "the essential fact of attribution is missing."

The ball is now back in Gonzales' court. If the White House indeed broke the law, it is incumbent upon DOJ to prosecute the crimes. Without legal action, an emboldened White House will continue to throw up obstacles to full disclosure and create propaganda that pushes Bush's political bromides on unsuspecting viewers.

It's been left to the public to do what our elected and appointed officials are unwilling or unable to: pressure our government to stop propaganda. Earlier this month, Free Press unleashed a public campaign to do just that. In less than a week, nearly 35,000 concerned citizens have signed letters to Congress and the Justice Department, urging Gonzales "to prosecute these crimes to the fullest extent of the law." (To learn more, visit www.freepress.net.)

Justice should never be delivered by popular fiat -- but it's essential that our elected officials and their appointees understand that the public is watching. As more evidence comes into view, we're able to assemble a case against an administration that has gone too far, involving a systemic and quiet campaign to manipulate the Fourth Estate and sway the electorate in favor of presidential policies.

Chances are that this corporate-styled White House will continue to employ the tactics of PR and marketing firms -- television advertising, product placement and media blitzes -- to pitch them to the public. But if Bush's sagging approval rating is any guide, Americans are no longer buying.

Timothy Karr is the author of MediaCitizen, a weblog about the future of America's media. He is the campaign director of Free Press. From September 2003 through February 2005, Karr was executive director of MediaChannel.org and Media for Democracy.