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Bush administration blurs media boundary

Controversy over a 'journalist' adds to the buzz about message control in capital.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 17, 2005


First came video "news releases" produced by the Bush administration using a TV news format. Then came three conservative columnists who got big paychecks from federal agencies. Now, there's Jeff Gannon (not his real name), a journalist (maybe) who gained surprisingly easy access to the president, only to lob a sympathetically slanted question.

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No evidence has surfaced that Mr. Gannon was directed by the White House, but the circumstances ignited a debate over the inner workings of the White House press room.

Presidents from George Washington on down have struggled with a news corps viewed as hostile. And in the age of television, the art of message management has been increasingly vital to the modern presidency.

But taken together, these recent controversies suggest that the Bush administration may be pushing that craft into new territory - and testing the limits of presidential public relations.

"The public has a reason to be concerned about the ways in which political manipulation is influencing journalism," says Larry Gross at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California.

Of course, the line between salesmanship and manipulation can be blurry. The White House's ability to stay "on message" has won respect even from its critics, albeit grudgingly. At the same time, other moves by the administration have raised concern.

In January came news that commentator Armstrong Williams, a syndicated broadcast host, had received a $240,000 payment from the Education Department to promote the No Child Left Behind Act. On a lesser scale, commentators Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus were paid $21,500 and $10,200, respectively, to advise the Department of Health and Human Services on its marriage initiatives. Unlike Williams, neither were paid explicitly to promote White House policy in their columns.

A 2004 video produced by the Health and Human Services Department to promote the administration's new Medicare prescription drug law ended with the tagline in journalese: "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting."

A number of local TV stations aired this spot and others produced by federal agencies, without disclosing their source.

Last May, the General Accounting Office ruled that the prepackaged news report segment violated a law prohibiting the use of federal funds for propaganda because it did not identify the government as the source of the news report.

It is unclear whether such activities occurred with any sanction from within the White House. In the wake of the publicity about Mr. Williams, President Bush has disavowed the practice of paying journalists. "All our Cabinet secretaries must realize that we will not be paying ... commentators to advance our agenda," he said. The Federal Communications Commission is investigating the payment to Williams.

Still, the climate of the administration has been one of growing public relations initiatives. Since President Bush took office, contracts for public relations work with the federal government have jumped from $39 million to $88.2 million last year, according to a report by Democratic staff of the House Government Reform Committee. These contracts cover everything from promoting the newly revised food pyramid to funding major initiatives from schools to Social Security.