Media  
comments_image Comments

Behind the White House's Billion-Dollar Propaganda Push

In two years, the Bush administration spent $1.6 billion to paint a prettier picture of its failing policies, even as it cut away the social safety net.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

The public-relations gloss that has long wrapped the Bush administration is fast becoming a blemish on the White House, according to lawmakers who have uncovered some $1.6 billion in federal funds spent on promoting various administration-sponsored programs.

A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress's research and auditing body, tracks more than 340 contracts negotiated between several government departments and PR, advertising and media firms from 2003 through the first part of 2005.

The study, requested by the House of Representatives Democratic leadership, found that from 2003 to mid-2005, the administration racked up some $1.4 billion in contracts with advertising agencies to broadcast positive messages about its policies and initiatives. Another $200 million went to public-relations companies, and $15 million were spent building connections with media outlets. Individual members of the press received a total of $100,000 in promotional contracts.

Seizing on the study's results as a chance to broach accountability issues in the administration, Representative Henry Waxman (D-California) said in a statement that the report showed the White House was spending taxpayer dollars on a self-serving "propaganda effort."

The study surveyed a total of seven departments, including Interior, Commerce, and Defense, and gathered information primarily through questionnaires sent to department personnel.

Though the exact nature of the expenditures is not always clear from brief project descriptions, the money apparently went to push an array of sometimes controversial White House programs, including efforts to research and promote the benefits of marriage, and campaigns to publicize the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act to seniors.

The bulk of the money went toward brightening the image of the military, with the Defense Department spending over $1 billion on media contracts. That chunk far outpaced the second-biggest spender, the Department of Health and Human Services, which doled out some $300 million. The Pentagon's public-relations priorities included a contract worth over $1 million to fund public-outreach speakers to promote the Army, as well as the development of story ideas for reporters "in support of Soldiers in the Global War on Terror."

The Air Force budgeted a $179 million contract for a national and local "advertising partnership" to recruit new military members. The records of Air Force contracts are also peppered with smaller promotional perks, such as prize giveaways and T-shirts and hats displaying the Coca-Cola logo, which totaled tens of thousands of dollars.

The Department of Homeland Security spent approximately $24 million on contracts to market itself. This included no-bid contracts with ad agencies in 2004 and 2005, worth about $6.5 million, for the development of the "Ready Campaign" -- which involved public service announcements "designed to educate and empower Americans about how to prepare for and respond to terrorist attacks."

The GAO acknowledged that the scope of the study was far from comprehensive, since the researchers did not independently review individual contracts, and the accuracy of the questionnaire responses could not be verified because "[t]here are no known accurate government-wide contract databases with which to compare" the findings. In the Defense Department in particular, different military branches reported contract expenditures with varying levels of detail.

According to a fact sheet issued in tandem with the GAO report, the top contractor hired by the White House was Leo Burnett USA, which received contracts worth $536 million over the study period. In addition to the government, Leo Burnett counts Philip Morris, Walt Disney, McDonald's and Visa among its clients and controls advertising agencies in 82 countries. The company branded the "Army of One" ad campaign, though the Defense Department last December broke ties with the company by signing a deal with a new ad agency worth an estimated $1.35 billion over five years.

Several House members requested the GAO report last year, after information about the intricate White House public-relations "machine" began to surface in the news. Raising questions of government transparency and conflict of interest, media watchdog groups and some officials expressed outrage over reports that prominent columnist Armstrong Williams was bankrolled by the administration to write articles praising the No Child Left Behind education program.

A similar scandal over "covert propaganda" erupted in reaction to the administration's "video news releases," or generic newscasts presenting a positive spin on government programs, which were then used verbatim by mainstream media outlets.

While many of the promotional projects listed in the study disclose the government as the source of the information, the report reveals several media contracts -- one worth nearly $650,000 -- to help create these non-attributed video news releases, giving unequivocally positive coverage to topics like tighter airport security regulations.

The Food and Drug Administration spent $20,000 in 2004 on the development and distribution of such news releases to warn consumers about the potential physical and legal problems of purchasing medical products on the Internet.

In the past, the GAO has challenged the legality of clandestine White House public-relations efforts. But the administration's legal counsel has issued statements defending the practice, arguing that the non-sourced news releases were legitimate public-education tools since "there is no advocacy of a particular viewpoint."

But the findings of this most recent GAO study turn less on legal issues and more on the question of whether the White House can justify the public cost of its self-promotion.

Following the release of the report, the media reform group Free Press issued a statement calling for a deeper investigation and full exposure of the administration's media operations. Spokesperson Craig Aaron said, "We must ensure that taxpayer money isn't being spent by the White House to secretly manipulate the American public."

Michelle Chen is a staff journalist for The NewStandard , an independent, non-profit daily news outlet.