What do leading Republicans have to say about the executive branch's fake news videos?
ASK THIS | March 16, 2005
If Bush's allies are critical, then the propaganda charge can't be written off as mere partisan bickering.
By Barry Sussman
Q. For Republican elected officials: In his press conference on March 16, President Bush defended the executive branch's practice of making and distributing videos for TV stations to run as independently gathered news. What is your view: Is this a legitimate practice for the executive branch?
Let’s see if I've got this right. Some news organizations are chastising the Bush Administration for putting out propaganda in the guise of video news releases while, at the same time, other media outlets are removing the government ID and running the videos as news.
The Comptroller General, the head of the Government Accountability Office, said distribution of videos made to look like real news reports is unethical and contrary to appropriations law. But the Justice Department has instructed the executive branch to ignore the Accountability Office.
On March 16, Ken Herman of Cox News Service asked Bush a sharp, clear question about all this. In response, the president defended the practice as a means of getting information to the public, and used the Maurice Stans defense, saying earlier administrations had done it. An excerpt of the question and answer:
HERMAN: Mr. President… Does it raise ethical questions about the use of government money to produce stories about the government that wind up being aired with no disclosure that they were produced by the government?
BUSH: ...There is a Justice Department opinion that says these pieces are within the law so long as they're based upon facts, not advocacy. And I expect our agencies to adhere to that ruling, to that Justice Department opinion. This has been a longstanding practice of the federal government to use these types of videos.
The comptroller general passes the reasonable-person test for logic and ethics and the president flunks it, trying as he does to assert the preposterous notion that fake news — trickery and deceit — is educational and serves democracy.
But there is a problem. While news organizations certainly should report on this issue, members of the the media may not appear to many people as the best, most independent judges of the question. For one thing, it involves them. And for another, they may be seen by some as just another squawking pressure group, which is how the White House likes to portray the media.
Reporters should put the question about the fake videos not to groups that may be seen as adversaries of Bush but rather to his allies, including Republican governors, senators and other GOP figures. I expect some of them will have strong opinions on the issue, if asked.
And rather than just fulminate, reporters and editors should be hard at work trying to find the extent of the propaganda abuse. Bush is drawing the line on videos "based upon facts, not advocacy." That's a hard distinction these days, but not impossible. And how much money is being spent on PR? What does that include? Is it a domestic problem only, or, as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has urged in the past, is the U.S. putting out disinformation abroad?
Barry Sussman is the editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project. He is the author of The Great Cover-Up: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate, now in its fourth edition.