The White House Fakes It

Continued violence in Iraq, a struggling economy, an unpopular plan to privatize Social Security, homeland security left underfunded while the rich get giant tax cuts ... what's a White House to do when the news about its policies isn't favorable? Fake it. An explosive, front-page New York Times story this weekend exposes President Bush's vast manipulation of the media and White House attempts to manipulate public opinion. Over the past four years, it turns out at least 20 different federal agencies have been involved in producing hundreds – yes, hundreds – of fake TV news segments, many of which were "subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government's role in their production." In fact, since President Bush took office, the White House has spent at least $254 million on these fake segments and other public relations ploys to spread positive propaganda about his policies. President Bush has paid lip service to the concept of a free press, saying in January 2005, "there needs to be a nice, independent relationship between the White House and the press, the administration and the press." He also claimed "our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet." Here's what happens when it can't.

Lose Your Identity: One of the largest concerns about these fake news segments is that they obscure the fact that they are paid for using taxpayer money and contain a one-sided, purely positive take on administration policy. In a now-infamous segment by the Department of Health and Human Services, a PR official named Karen Ryan posed as a reporter interviewing then-Secretary Tommy Thompson. (Her role in the well-rehearsed spot was to give Thompson "better, snappier answers" to her pre-approved questions.) The Government Accountability Office found the agency "designed and executed" her segments "to be indistinguishable from news stories produced by private sector television news organizations."

Office of B.S.: The Office of Broadcasting Services is a branch of the State Department which traditionally has acted as a clearinghouse for video from news conferences. That all changed three years ago. In 2002, "with close editorial direction from the White House," the unit started producing fake news segments to back up President Bush's rationale for going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. As one senior official told Congress, the phony segments were "powerful strategic tools" used to influence public opinion. In all, the office produced nearly 60 segments, which were then distributed around the world for local stations to use as actual news footage. Although the White House has claimed ignorance about the use of fake news, it was well aware this was happening. A White House memo in January 2003 actually said segments the State Department disseminated about the liberation of Afghan women were "a prime example" of how "White-House led efforts could facilitate strategic, proactive communications in the war on terror."

Ignore the GAO: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is a nonpartisan branch of Congress that investigates government fraud. The GAO criticized the administration's role in creating phony news three separate times in the past year, saying unless viewers are aware that what they're watching is government produced, it constitutes "covert propaganda." The GAO also forbade federal agencies from creating prepackaged news reports "that conceal or do not clearly identify for the television viewing audience that the agency was the source of those materials." The administration's response? The New York Times reports that on Friday, "the Justice Department and the Office of Management and Budget circulated a memorandum instructing all executive branch agencies to ignore the GAO findings."

Ignore Federal Law: These fake news spots are produced with taxpayer money by outside public relations firms. Federal law warns federal agencies away from doing exactly that; the U.S. Code states "appropriated funds may not be used to pay a publicity expert unless specifically appropriated for that purpose." However, the GAO, which monitors the law, has no enforcement power. That responsibility lies with Congress and the White House. U.S. federal law also contains the Smith Mundt Act of 1948, which prohibits the spread of government propaganda in the United States (although it allows groups like Voice of America to broadcast it to foreign audiences.) According to the NY Times, State Department officials claim that provision doesn't apply to them.

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