President Bush prides himself on straight talk, but elsewhere his administration shows a worrisome streak of duplicity.
On Friday it was disclosed the U.S. Department of Education surreptitiously paid Armstrong Williams, a prominent black conservative commentator, $241,000 to beat the drums for the then-pending No Child Left Behind Act. We say “surreptitious” because the information only surfaced when USA Today pried it out of the department through a Freedom of Information Act request – an avenue of government openness that the Bush Justice Department has sought to curtail.
Williams made no mention of the payment as he praised Bush’s education proposal and the administration in his columns and TV appearances. What he was doing was not commentary; it was government propaganda. His syndicate has since dropped his column and one TV network has suspended his show. Williams seems chastened by this gross breach of journalism ethics, but the damage has been done.
That’s the last thing the press needs, another blow to its credibility, and it certainly doesn’t help the Bush administration already suffering credibility problems of its own – the shifting rationale for the war on Iraq, the questionable numbers used to justify the tax cuts and such stunts as suppressing its own and much higher estimate of the cost of the Medicare drug benefit.
The government is actually barred from domestic propaganda, but the Williams case was not the first such incident.
Congressional watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office have twice said within the past year that the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House office of drug policy probably violated federal law by issuing video press releases in the guise of news reports. To their discredit, many TV stations presented the administration propaganda as actual news. Other federal agencies have reportedly issued similar faux news videos touting their programs.
The administration should halt this practice. It’s fair to ask how good a program can be if selling it requires deceiving the public. Congress, if it chooses, can put an immediate halt to the deceptive videos: Cut the agencies’ budgets by the amount they spend on them.
(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)