National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  March 26, 2004

Make-believe journalists with phony news

Not satisfied with the public clubbing it is taking over its alleged cover-up of the actual costs of last year’s Medicare prescription drug legislation, the Department of Health and Human Services is providing more fodder for those who think “honesty in government” is an increasingly oxymoronic notion.

Rather than inform citizens in a straightforward manner about the benefits available to them under the new drug program, Health and Human Services spinmeisters attempted to be clever. They hired a firm to produce “news reports” that tout the program and President Bush’s role in aiding senior citizens.

These “video releases” -- complete with a phony “correspondent” who collegially kicks it back to the anchor desk with “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting” -- were then shipped to local television stations in the hope that they would be used as part of the news broadcasts.

They have been.

According to government auditors, Health and Human Services didn’t violate laws against producing government-sponsored “propaganda,” though the advertisements were reported to contain “notable omissions and other weaknesses.” In truth, the millions spent developing these ads should be charged to the Bush for President campaign.

On one level, this is nothing new. Our history is replete with politicians and presidents who have manipulated the press. It comes with the territory.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had their partisans in the fourth estate; Abraham Lincoln wasn’t above jailing journalists whose devotion to the Union was half-hearted; and Franklin Roosevelt was a master manipulator. John Kennedy was our first telegenic national leader. His oh-so-cozy relationship with some members of the press (Ben Bradlee, Arthur Krock and Hugh Sydey among them) redounded to his benefit.

And then Ronald Reagan (with the help of PR whiz Michael Deaver) made the presidential photo-op high art, a thing of beauty for the propagandists to admire.

The bully pulpit, more and more it seems, is just so much bull.

Case in point: A decade ago, a young public relations officer at a suburban Washington metropolitan housing agency got a phone call. Could you find a married couple who had recently purchased a home using government subsidies? President Clinton, the PR guy was told, would like to use the family as a backdrop to announce a new homeownership initiative.

The “advance team” for the presidential visit wanted a 1994 equivalent of Ozzie and Harriet. Married, hardworking, and, it was clear, Caucasian. (Clinton, you see, was striving to appeal to the white middle class.)

The PR man failed in his mission: In the multicultural mixing pot of the D.C. suburbs there were plenty of new homeowners who had government assistance, but none that fit the, er, demographic profile. Clinton instead went to Allentown, Pa., where a suitable family was discovered and the message that the Democratic Party cares about white people delivered.

Which brings us to George W. Bush, who earlier this month went to Ardmore, Pa., and visited Pearl Cerdan, an African-American single mother of six. Thanks to Ms. Cerdan’s hard work, and to the creative finance programs underwritten by the federal government, the family recently purchased its first home.

The resulting photo-op was heartwarming -- compassionate conservatism at its most manipulative.

And now we have government-subsidized make-believe journalists producing phony news for local news directors and a largely oblivious citizenry.

Is it any wonder that millions of Americans now rely on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” for their news? And who can blame them? Parody is preferable to propaganda.

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 2004

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