Bush administration blurs media boundary
Controversy over a 'journalist' adds to the buzz about message control in capital.
WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
The Bush administration isn't the first to pay journalists to promote their causes. President Jefferson hired journalist James Callender to attack his rival John Adams, only to have Callender later turn on him with reports that he had fathered a child with his slave, Sally Hemings.
The classic presidential tack for managing the news is to shut off access to journalists. Deeply frustrated by the coverage of the Watergate scandal, President Nixon directed his staff to ban any representative from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time Magazine, Newsweek, CBS, and a UPI reporter from the press pool - an order his staff largely ignored. But during the 2004 campaign, a New York Times reporter assigned to cover Vice President Cheney was routinely excluded from the press plane.
And adversarial relations with the media aren't limited to Washington, D.C. In Maryland, a federal judge ruled Monday that Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) can bar state employees from talking to two reporters for the Baltimore Sun - a move described by Sun editors as "scary."
While such actions rankle the press, they don't always disturb the public.
"Over the past several years, the Bush administration has learned that it can engage the press in an adversarial way, and the public won't mind. It's yet another step in managed news," says Tom Hollihan, another journalism expert at USC's Annenberg School.
These include screening the people who attend meetings that appear to have a town-hall format, and bypassing the national media to go directly to local media where, he says, "there are more softball questions."
In a preemptive move last month, senior House Democrats called on the White House to halt "use of propaganda" to push the president's plan to create private or personal accounts in Social Security. Democrats are requesting all materials created for radio, TV, or newspapers and other venues to promote the plan.
"There is a pattern of propaganda by the Bush administration that must be stopped," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
The Gannon case raises the tougher question of who gets to be a journalist. In Washington, credentialing standards vary among the different branches of government. Gannon, who wrote for the GOP-linked Talon News website, was first criticized by liberal Internet bloggers, who objected to the pro-administration slant in his questions, such as "...How are you going to work with [Democrats] who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?"
Turned down for a congressional press pass because he did not meet the standards set for a journalist, James Guckert (Gannon's real name) has had access to the White House briefing room for more than two years on day passes. "Many seasoned journalists have not had the honor of attending the events or enjoying the access Mr. Guckert has," said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D) of New York. This week she asked for release of information on Gannon's credentialing.