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There's something rotten in D.C. And I don't mean a garbage strike in the heat of summer. I mean what the Government Accounting Office is calling "covert propaganda." Propaganda is generally defined as spreading information for a persuasive purpose. In this case, it is the covert or hidden aspect that is the problem. So who or what in D.C. might be guilty of this dirty deed - could it be the federal government?
According to the GAO, the answer is "yes." In a recent ruling, the GAO focused on the use of video news releases (VNR) that are produced for government agencies and frequently presented to the public as if they were legitimate news reports prepared by local TV stations. The New York Times reported that at least 20 federal agencies have produced and distributed prepackaged news segments in the last four years, including the departments of agriculture and health and human services as well as the State Department. In some of these VNRs, various government officials are "interviewed" by actors playing the role of news reporters. The "interview" consists of scripted questions created by the government agency, but this authorship is not always clearly revealed. In the GAOs own words, "The critical element of covert propaganda is the concealment of the agency's role in sponsoring the materials." Local TV viewers think they are watching the news, but in fact they are watching government propaganda.
In addition to the VNRs, two other notable versions of this blurring of the line between news and propaganda exist. One involves the use of print journalists such as Armstrong Williams, paid $240,000 to push the No Child Left Behind legislation. He is one of several high-profile cases involving journalists who have taken covert payment from the federal government to plug controversial government initiatives. The second variation is the establishment of "news" outlets such as Talon News, which hired a "journalist" who copied White House press releases verbatim and managed to spend two years in the White House press corps without passing the security clearance required by regular press corps members. In this case, there was no direct link to a federal agency, just a direct link to GOPUSA, a Texas-based political action group.
What's the big deal? In fact, this blending of news and propaganda gives us plenty to deal with. The State Department's Office of Broadcasting Services produced 60 video "news" releases that helped nudge the country toward the war in Iraq. According to the Times, during its first term, the Bush administration spent $254 million on public relations contracts. To be fair, federal agencies under the Clinton administration also hired PR firms, but the practice of disguising the source of information is a recent trend that should raise a red flag.
The worrisome aspect of this trend is the impact it has on the relationship between journalism, the public, and democracy. Democracy cannot exist without a free and transparent press and an informed public. Journalists support democracy, according to Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute, by holding "the powerful accountable." This can't happen if the powerful fashion the news themselves.
As citizens in a democracy, we have the responsibility to evaluate information presented to us by the media. In order to do this, we must know the source of that information. If we view an advertisement for a truck, we know that the manufacturer and its ad agency are working to create a persuasive blurb that presents this truck in a positive way. The ad is propaganda, but it is not covert. In contrast, we don't expect the nightly news to be selling via propaganda; instead we expect an effort at fair and truthful reporting that is supported by individual, network and/or publisher credibility. We expect opinion to be clearly marked. In matters of public policy, we need journalism in all its various forms to educate us about the pertinent facts and opinions concerning such issues as a declaration of war, education reform, and health matters. We don't need a rehearsed, scripted interview staged by covertly paid players that replaces the healthy discussion of multiple viewpoints. That is the big deal and the big difference.
Judith Andree is an associate professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast.