Bypassing that Dang Filter

For an administration that places a premium on secrecy while openly holding the media in contempt, the Bush administration sure pays a lot of attention to journalists.

Just how much time — and money — they spend has recently been exposed in a couple of high-profile payola scandals. In early January we learned that commentator Armstrong Williams was paid $241,000 by the Education Department to help promote President Bush’s No Child Left Behind bill in his journalistic offerings. And in a similar story, today we hear that Maggie Gallagher, a syndicated columnist who repeatedly defended the Bush marriage initiative in 2002, failed to disclose that she had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to publicize and promote the proposal. According to the Washington Post, “Her work under the contract, which ran from January through October 2002, included drafting a magazine article for the HHS official overseeing the initiative, writing brochures for the program and conducting a briefing for department officials.” Gallagher also received $20,000 of a Justice Department grant to the National Fatherhood Initiative in 2002 and 2003 for writing a report for the organization.

While that doesn’t quite sink to the level of the Williams fiasco, it turns out there’s more. Both while under contract and after, Gallagher appeared on television promoting the initiative and wrote syndicated columns in support of the president’s plan — all while failing to disclose her contract. Her excuse? Well, she just plum forgot. “I would have, [disclosed the contract] if I had remembered it,” she said. (If only we all had the luxury of “forgetting” a nice check for $21,000 that arrives in the mail.)

On the heels of all this comes an Associated Press story that hit the wires this afternoon headlined, “GOP Seeks Donations to Get Bush Plans ‘Past the Liberal Media.’” It seems that Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman sent a fund-raising email out Wednesday morning telling supporters that donations are needed “to get the president’s message past the liberal media filter and directly to the American people.” Funny, isn’t it, how at the same time the administration gets busted for paying off columnists to tout its programs, all of a sudden it needs cash to “get past” the media. Just this morning, the president told reporters at a press conference that “all our Cabinet secretaries must realize that we will not be paying, you know, commentators to advance our agenda. Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet.”

This isn’t the first time Bush and his crew have complained about the “filter.” In October 2003, the president complained that “Somehow you just got to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the American people.” Back then, the president was talking about stories coming out of Iraq that focused more on the post-invasion carnage than, say, repainted schoolhouses. Today, the filter they hope to end-run around is coverage of negative responses to his plan to partially privatize (yes, privatize) Social Security.

According to this logic, it’s not the administration’s policies that draw the heat, it’s just that darn media filter which keeps reporting those inconvenient facts.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.