Washington these days feels a little like Moscow in Soviet times when the government routinely dispensed information to the public and the public routinely didn't believe it. The two main newspapers were the Communist Party organ, Pravda, (Truth) and the Soviet government organ, Izvestiya (News). People used to say, "There is no Izvestiya in Pravda and no Pravda in Izvestiya."
For three years our leaders told us that Iraq for sure had weapons of mass destruction ... well, pretty sure ... well, maybe. One war later, after scouring the countryside, the government admits that there weren't any such weapons. If President Bush were to go on TV one of these days and say that Iran has developed a nuclear bomb, requiring American action, who would believe him?
On a less momentous scale, who can believe TV news reports when they may turn out to be government-financed videos? Have you ever seen the report on the drug benefits of the Bush Medicare act that ran on 40 local TV stations, complete with the "out-cue": "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting"? The Department of Health and Human Services paid her to play the role of reporter. Or, did you see the report on the antidrug campaign produced by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, narrated by nonjournalist Mike Morris?
Or, more recently, the TV and newspaper comments of Armstrong Williams, praising the Bush No Child Left Behind education act, bought with $240,000 of Education Department money?
Education Secretary Rod Paige, shocked, says he is ordering an investigation of "perceptions and allegations of ethical lapses."
Appropriation bills often contain a prohibition on the use of taxpayer money for government propaganda. That has certainly been violated many times. Would it be too much to require that these pseudo-news reports at least reveal the source of their funding? If people knew it came from the government, they might not believe it.
How did we ever get to this point?
• Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.