The Best News Tax Money Can Buy

Two stories out on Friday suggest the Bush administration is going to great lengths to make sure Americans get the right kind of news—their kind.

First, The New York Times reports that the Government Accountability Office has ruled that a series of video releases from the Office of National Drug Control Policy broke federal law against "covert propaganda" because they were produced to look like news reports, misleading people into thinking that a journalist, rather than a paid actor, was "reporting" on the nation's drug policy.

The GAO found:

    Each of ONDCP's news stories includes narration by an unseen person, sometimes identified as Mike Morris or Karen Ryan. (The scripts for ONDCP's prepackaged news stories refer to this person as the "announcer.") The narrator explains that he or she is "reporting" on press conferences and other activities of ONDCP and other government officials regarding ONDCP's anti-drug campaign. Each story is accompanied by proposed "lead-in" and "closing" remarks to be spoken by television station news anchors. Many of the suggested anchor remarks include a phrase like, "Mike Morris has the story," or "Mike Morris has more." ONDCP told us that the narrators were hired to read the scripts for the prepackaged new stories, as prepared for and approved by ONDCP.

It was the second time in a year that the GAO made such a finding: In May, it determined that a series of video news releases touting the new Medicare prescription drug benefit also violated the propaganda ban. The mysterious "Karen Ryan" was also a "reporter" on those segments.

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The appeal of these fake news pieces is described well by one firm that produced two pieces featuring "Mike Morris," Gouvritz Communications: "Imagine the credibility to be gained by having your message delivered by a trusted news anchor as opposed to a paid commercial spot, and you begin to realize the power of Broadcast Public Relations." (Here's a script for one of the pieces, and here's yet another.)

Meanwhile, USA Today reports that the Bush administration paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to hype the No Child Left Behind law.

In Friday's White House press briefing, spokesman Scott McClellan said the media campaigns were the responsibilities of the Education Department and ONDCP, respectively.

"They both indicated that they had" canceled the efforts, McClellan said. "We think it was an appropriate step to take by those offices."

(Full Disclosure: This column was not funded by the Bush administration. However, if the White House—or anyone else—would like to fund future columns, let's talk.)

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