The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

covert propaganda

Buried in the press on Friday--underneath Judith Miller's testimony, Katrina and Rita recovery news, Tom DeLay's indictment, and the Yanks-Sox showdown--was news that the Government Accountability Office ruled that the Bush administration's undercover payments to columnist Armstrong Williams to pimp their "No Child Left Behind" act were illegal and constitute "covert propaganda."

Basically, this effort (which neither began nor ended with Williams) was meant to plant favorable stories about NCLB in the press without alerting the public to the fact that these "stories" were in fact PR. They used "video news releases," prepackaged 90-second stories prepared by a PR firm (in this case, Ketchum) that look like local-news features and are sold to local news channels, to push their agenda, knowing that local station news directors often buy these stories rather than paying for reporters to conduct investigations. (The Bushies learned this from industry, especially the drug industry, who frequently sell prepackaged "news reports" about their latest discoveries: Vioxx, the miracle drug! Phen-Fen, the cure-all!) In its story, CNN put it this way:

"'Because the department's role in the production and distribution of the prepackaged news story is not revealed to the target audience, the prepackaged news story constitutes covert propaganda,' the investigators wrote."

The authors of the relevant laws felt that the government should not engage in "covert propaganda"--efforts, in which the government's own role is hidden, to control information provided to citizens in order to advance a political agenda.

They aren't always so covert about marketing NCLB, either.


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