The Vampire Rises Again

Nearly a year ago CJR Daily helped expose Karen Ryan — a public relations professional paid by the government to anchor fake news stories promoting the then-new Medicare law and its supposed benefits. The video news releases (VNR) were sent out to local affiliates across the county on CNN’s video wire and played as “news” on countless stations that didn’t inform viewers that that they were watching government propaganda paid for by the Department of Health and Human Services. Ultimately, CNN changed its policies and began explicitly labeling the VNR’s what they were, the Government Accountability Office concluded that HHS had violated two federal laws, and the Public Relations Society of America disavowed the practice.

But three stakes in the heart weren’t enough to keep this vampire down, and today come two stories of similar manipulation of the press and the public by government agencies.

First, the Washington Post reports that the Office of National Drug Control Policy stole a page out of HHS’ playbook and hired a former journalist, Mike Morris, to be their Karen Ryan. According to the Post, local anchors were provided a script that led into a “report” by Morris that included interviews with John Walters, the head of the federal drug policy control office, and other government officials.

The Post reports that at least 300 news shows used portions of seven prepackaged reports sent out to 770 affiliates, identified not as government PR but as news.

Earlier this week the GAO ruled that the campaign by the Office of National Drug Control Policy “constitute[s] covert propaganda and violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition because ONDCP did not identify itself to the viewing audience as the producer and distributor of these prepackaged news stories.”

The Post put the taxpayer price tag for the “covert propaganda” at $150,000.

Moving on … add another $90,000 to that cute little use of your tax dollars and you’ve got the going rate for what our government bribes commentators to tout the No Child Left Behind education law.

USA Today broke the news:

Seeking to build support among black families for its education reform law, the Bush administration paid a prominent black pundit $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same.

The campaign, part of an effort to promote No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required commentator Armstrong Williams “to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts,” and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004.

According to the story, PR firm Ketchum — the same firm that hired Karen Ryan to promote Medicare — hired Williams.

Williams offered this defense to USA Today: “I wanted to do it because it’s something I believe in.” More bizarre yet, he was then gently let off the hook by Bob Steele, an oft-quoted media ethics expert at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies who told the paper, “I respect Mr. Williams’ statement that this is something he believes in. But I would suggest that his commitment to that belief is best exercised through his excellent professional work rather than through contractual obligations with outsiders who are, quite clearly, trying to influence content.”

Perhaps Steele was still a little sleepy when the USA Today reporter called him, but there should be zero sympathy for Williams. There is no gray area in this case: Williams took money — lots of money — to cloak government propaganda as his own commentary. And then, when exposed, he brushed the incident off with an excuse worthy of a professional arsonist explaining why he took money to torch a block of dilapidated buildings.

The price tag for these two examples of government buying positive news coverage of current policy: nearly $400,000.

We don’t police the behavior of public officials. But we can and will go after any journalist who thinks it’s okay to accept cash to pass propaganda off as news — and that includes Morris and Williams. And we’d like to remind local news directors that video news releases are not news. If you knowingly play them as such, then you’re equally as guilty as your dealer.

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.