WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Bush administration broke rules against domestic propaganda when it worked with public relations firm Ketchum to pay for favorable publicity about the No Child Left Behind initiative, according to two reports issued by the Government Accountability Office last week.
Ketchum commissioned a video news release that was widely distributed to television news producers, Monitored news stories to see whether the Republican Party’s views on education were favorably reported and paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams for his editorial support of the controversial program.
The VNR did not reveal the federal government’s role in its production, the report said, nor did Williams reveal that he was receiving money from the government in exchange for his support. The Department of Education paid $38,400 for the video news release and $96,800 for analysis of the news reports, the GAO says.
But the GAO said the efforts violated the government’s “publicity or propaganda prohibition” because the department did not clearly disclose its role to the public. The VNR was clearly labeled, and news producers who chose to use it were aware that it was produced by the Department of Education—although most elected not to share that information with their viewers.
“When the television viewing public does not know that the stories they watched on television news programs about the government were in fact prepared by the government, the stories are, in this sense, no longer purely factual. The essential fact of attribution is missing,” said the GAO, adding: “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.”
As for the media analysis, Ketchum rated news stories and individual reporters on how favorable their education reporting was to Bush and the Republican Party. While such analysis required little extra expense, the GAO urged that “if the department chooses to conduct media analyses in the future, it be more diligent in its efforts to ensure that such analyses be free from such explicit partisan content.
“We see no use for such information except for partisan political purposes. Engaging in a purely political activity such as this is not a proper use of appropriated funds.”
The report was immediately hailed by Democrats eager to present it as yet another example of the Bush administration’s media manipulation and ethical deficiencies.
“Rather than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on producing Republican propaganda, the Administration should return those funds and live up to the promises they made to America’s students and teachers,” said Senator Edward Kennedy in a statement. Kennedy and fellow Democrat Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey had requested the Government Accountability Office look into the Ketchum contracts.
The two senators have reportedly sent a letter to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings—who replaced Rod Paige, secretary when the PR effort was undertaken—urging her to abide by the law, recover the misspent dollars and meet with them on Capitol Hill. Spellings spokeswoman, Susan Aspey, said, “Under Secretary Spellings’ leadership, stringent processes have been instituted to ensure these types of missteps don’t happen again.”
The Bush administration sought to downplay the reports, pointing out that it had condemned the use of propaganda when the controversy was at its height earlier this year. “The president has said it was wrong,” said Erin Healy, a spokeswoman for the White House. “The Department of Education already has taken steps to address it.”
However, the GAO urged the department to look into whether another violation occurred when Ketchum commissioned North American Precis Syndicate to write a newspaper article entitled “Parents want science classes that make the grade” that appeared in numerous small papers around the country without any disclosure of the department’s role.