The Buying of the Media in America
Media commentator Armstrong Williams was paid more than $240,000 by the US government to provide support for the new legislation known as No Child Left Behind. He is not alone. We, the public, need to investigate other journalists who are bought or are persuaded to color the news. Betsy Combier
All the President's Newsmen
January 16, 2005
FRANK RICH, NY TIMES
ONE day after the co-host Tucker Carlson made his farewell appearance and two days after the new president of CNN made the admirable announcement that he would soon kill the program altogether, a television news miracle occurred: even as it staggered through its last nine yards to the network guillotine, "Crossfire" came up with the worst show in its fabled 23-year history.
This was a half-hour of television so egregious that it makes Jon Stewart's famous pre-election rant seem, if anything, too kind. This time "Crossfire" wasn't just "hurting America," as Mr. Stewart put it, by turning news into a nonsensical gong show. It was unwittingly, or perhaps wittingly, complicit in the cover-up of a scandal.
I do not mean to minimize the CBS News debacle and other recent journalistic outrages at The New York Times and elsewhere. But the Jan. 7 edition of CNN's signature show can stand as an exceptionally ripe paradigm of what is happening to the free flow of information in a country in which a timid news media, the fierce (and often covert) Bush administration propaganda machine, lax and sometimes corrupt journalistic practices, and a celebrity culture all combine to keep the public at many more than six degrees of separation from anything that might resemble the truth.
On this particular "Crossfire," the featured guest was Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator, talk-show host and newspaper columnist (for papers like The Washington Times and The Detroit Free Press, among many others, according to his Web site). Thanks to investigative reporting by USA Today, he had just been unmasked as the frontman for a scheme in which $240,000 of taxpayers' money was quietly siphoned to him through the Department of Education and a private p.r. firm so that he would "regularly comment" upon (translation: shill for) the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind policy in various media venues during an election year. Given that "Crossfire" was initially conceived as a program for tough interrogation and debate, you'd think that the co-hosts still on duty after Mr. Carlson's departure might try to get some answers about this scandal, whose full contours, I suspect, we are only just beginning to discern.
But there is nothing if not honor among bloviators. "On the left," as they say at "Crossfire," Paul Begala, a Democratic political consultant, offered condemnations of the Bush administration but had only soft questions and plaudits for Mr. Williams. Three times in scarcely as many minutes Mr. Begala congratulated his guest for being "a stand-up guy" simply for appearing in the show's purportedly hostile but entirely friendly confines. When Mr. Williams apologized for having crossed "some ethical lines," that was enough to earn Mr. Begala's benediction: "God bless you for that."
"On the right" was the columnist Robert Novak, who "in the interests of full disclosure" told the audience he is a "personal friend" of Mr. Williams, whom he "greatly" admires as "one of the foremost voices for conservatism in America." Needless to say, Mr. Novak didn't have any tough questions, either, but we should pause a moment to analyze this "Crossfire" co-host's disingenuous use of the term "full disclosure."
Last year Mr. Novak had failed to fully disclose - until others in the press called him on it - that his son is the director of marketing for Regnery, the company that published "Unfit for Command," the Swift boat veterans' anti-Kerry screed that Mr. Novak flogged relentlessly on CNN and elsewhere throughout the campaign. Nor had he fully disclosed, as Mary Jacoby of Salon reported, that Regnery's owner also publishes his subscription newsletter ($297 a year). Nor has Mr. Novak fully disclosed why he has so far eluded any censure in the federal investigation of his outing of a C.I.A. operative, Valerie Plame, while two other reporters, Judith Miller of The Times and Matt Cooper of Time, are facing possible prison terms in the same case. In this context, Mr. Novak's "full disclosure" of his friendship with Mr. Williams is so anomalous that it raised many more questions than it answers.
That he and Mr. Begala would be allowed to lob softballs at a man who may have been a cog in illegal government wrongdoing, on a show produced by television's self-proclaimed "most trusted" news network, is bad enough. That almost no one would notice, let alone protest, is a snapshot of our cultural moment, in which hidden agendas in the presentation of "news" metastasize daily into a Kafkaesque hall of mirrors that could drive even the most earnest American into abject cynicism. But the ugly bigger picture reaches well beyond "Crossfire" and CNN.
Mr. Williams has repeatedly said in his damage-control press appearances that he was being paid the $240,000 only to promote No Child Left Behind. He also routinely says that he made the mistake of taking the payola because he wasn't part of the "media elite" and therefore didn't know "the rules and guidelines" of journalistic conflict-of-interest. His own public record tells us another story entirely. While on the administration payroll he was not only a cheerleader for No Child Left Behind but also for President Bush's Iraq policy and his performance in the presidential debates. And for a man who purports to have learned of media ethics only this month, Mr. Williams has spent an undue amount of time appearing as a media ethicist on both CNN and the cable news networks of NBC.
He took to CNN last October to give his own critique of the CBS News scandal, pointing out that the producer of the Bush-National Guard story, Mary Mapes, was guilty of a conflict of interest because she introduced her source, the anti-Bush partisan Bill Burkett, to a Kerry campaign operative, Joe Lockhart. In this Mr. Williams's judgment was correct, but grave as Ms. Mapes's infraction was, it isn't quite in the same league as receiving $240,000 from the United States Treasury to propagandize for the Bush campaign on camera. Mr. Williams also appeared with Alan Murray on CNBC to trash Kitty Kelley's book on the Bush family, on CNN to accuse the media of being Michael Moore's "p.r. machine" and on Tina Brown's CNBC talk show to lambaste Mr. Stewart for doing a "puff interview" with John Kerry on "The Daily Show" (which Mr. Williams, unsurprisingly, seems to think is a real, not a fake, news program).
But perhaps the most fascinating Williams TV appearance took place in December 2003, the same month that he was first contracted by the government to receive his payoffs. At a time when no one in television news could get an interview with Dick Cheney, Mr. Williams, of all "journalists," was rewarded with an extended sit-down with the vice president for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a nationwide owner of local stations affiliated with all the major networks. In that chat, Mr. Cheney criticized the press for its coverage of Halliburton and denounced "cheap shot journalism" in which "the press portray themselves as objective observers of the passing scene, when they obviously are not objective."
This is a scenario out of "The Manchurian Candidate." Here we find Mr. Cheney criticizing the press for a sin his own government was at that same moment signing up Mr. Williams to commit. The interview is broadcast by the same company that would later order its ABC affiliates to ban Ted Koppel's "Nightline" recitation of American casualties in Iraq and then propose showing an anti-Kerry documentary, "Stolen Honor," under the rubric of "news" in prime time just before Election Day. (After fierce criticism, Sinclair retreated from that plan.) Thus the Williams interview with the vice president, implicitly presented as an example of the kind of "objective" news Mr. Cheney endorses, was in reality a completely subjective, bought-and-paid-for fake news event for a broadcast company that barely bothers to fake objectivity and both of whose chief executives were major contributors to the Bush-Cheney campaign. The Soviets couldn't have constructed a more ingenious or insidious plot to bamboozle the citizenry.
Ever since Mr. Williams was exposed by USA Today, he has been stonewalling all questions about what the Bush administration knew of his activities and when it knew it. In his account, he was merely a lowly "subcontractor" of the education department. "Never was the White House ever mentioned anytime during this," he told NBC's Campbell Brown, as if that were enough to deflect Ms. Brown's observation that "the Department of Education works for the White House." For its part, the White House is saying that the whole affair is, in the words of the press secretary, Scott McClellan, "a contracting matter" and "a decision by the Department of Education." In other words, the buck stops (or started) with Rod Paige, the elusive outgoing education secretary who often appeared with Mr. Williams in his pay-for-play propaganda.
But we now know that there have been at least three other cases in which federal agencies have succeeded in placing fake news reports on television during the Bush presidency. The Department of Health and Human Services, the Census Bureau and the Office of National Drug Control Policy have all sent out news "reports" in which, to take one example, fake newsmen purport to be "reporting" why the administration's Medicare prescription-drug policy is the best thing to come our way since the Salk vaccine. So far two Government Accountability Office investigations have found that these Orwellian stunts violated federal law that prohibits "covert propaganda" purchased with taxpayers' money. But the Williams case is the first one in which a well-known talking head has been recruited as the public face for the fake news instead of bogus correspondents (recruited from p.r. companies) with generic eyewitness-news team names like Karen Ryan and Mike Morris.
Or is Mr. Williams merely the first one of his ilk to be exposed? Every time this administration puts out fiction through the news media - the "Rambo" exploits of Jessica Lynch, the initial cover-up of Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire - it's assumed that a credulous and excessively deferential press was duped. But might there be more paid agents at loose in the media machine? In response to questions at the White House, Mr. McClellan has said that he is "not aware" of any other such case and that he hasn't "heard" whether the administration's senior staff knew of the Williams contract - nondenial denials with miles of wiggle room. Mr. Williams, meanwhile, has told both James Rainey of The Los Angeles Times and David Corn of The Nation that he has "no doubt" that there are "others" like him being paid for purveying administration propaganda and that "this happens all the time." So far he is refusing to name names - a vow of omertà all too reminiscent of that taken by the low-level operatives first apprehended in that "third-rate burglary" during the Nixon administration.
If CNN, just under new management, wants to make amends for the sins of "Crossfire," it might dispatch some real reporters to find out just which "others" Mr. Williams is talking about and to follow his money all the way back to its source.
Armstrong Williams: Education Propaganda, Payola, or Whatever You Call it, is Still False ADvertising and Political Misconduct
Taxpayer-Funded Political PR: Bush Administration Pays Media Commentator to Support No Child Left Behind
Education Propaganda and George Will
January 29, 2005
Third Journalist Was Paid to Promote Bush Policies
By ANNE E. KORNBLUT, NY TIMES
WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 - The Bush administration acknowledged on Friday that it had paid a third conservative commentator, and at least two departments said they were conducting internal inquiries to see if other journalists were under government contract. The investigative arm of Congress also formally began an inquiry of its own.
The Department of Health and Human Services confirmed having hired Michael McManus, who writes a weekly syndicated column and is director of a nonprofit group called Marriage Savers. Mr. McManus was paid $10,000 to help train counselors about marriage, an arrangement first reported in USA Today, but officials said he was paid for his expertise rather than to write columns supporting administration policies.
At the same time, the Government Accountability Office told the Education Department it was investigating a $240,000 contract with the commentator Armstrong Williams that came to light earlier this month, requesting that education officials turn over any paper or video materials related to the case. Another conservative writer, Maggie Gallagher, admitted earlier this week having a $21,500 deal with the Department of Health and Human Services.
Besieged with questions about contracts with outside public relations firms and columnists, officials at the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services said they were conducting their own inquiries and, two days after a demand from President Bush, they promised to stop hiring commentators.
In an e-mail message to his staff, Wade Horn, the assistant secretary for children and families, explicitly banned hiring columnists for the Health and Human Services Department, saying it was "important to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest."
In an interview, Mr. Horn said the line between journalism, commentary and consulting had blurred.
"Thirty years ago, if you were a columnist, you were employed full time by a newspaper most likely, and it was very clear," he said. "With the explosion of media outfits today, there are a lot of people who wear a lot of hats. Where's the line? What if you have your own blog? Are you a journalist?"
A similar message came from officials at the Education Department.
"I am diligently working to get to the bottom of it all," Margaret Spellings, the new education secretary, wrote to two members of the Senate Appropriations Committee who had demanded a full accounting of the contract with Mr. Armstrong.
Ms. Spellings also released a list of contracts the department had with outside public relations firms and media outlets, including Hager Sharp, a public affairs firm, ABC Radio Networks, Bauhaus Media Group, Radio One Inc. and the Corporate Sports Marketing Group. One firm, North American Precis, was given a "contract to develop short syndicated newspaper articles for national distribution informing the public about the National Center for Education Statistics Web site." The list did not show amounts paid.
The contract list showed two separate agreements with Ketchum Inc., which had arranged the contract with Mr. Williams. Although Department of Education officials said they had suspended Ketchum's work on the more than $1 million contract that included hiring Mr. Williams, they said they had not fired the public relations firm altogether, but were instead reviewing all existing agreements.
Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat who has demanded several investigations into the so-called "payola" practices, welcomed the Government Accountability Office inquiry.
"The issue here isn't just whether a journalist violated ethics," Mr. Lautenberg said, "but whether the Bush administration broke the law. If the G.A.O. finds that the payment to Armstrong Williams was an illegal use of taxpayer dollars, then the money should be returned and Education Department officials should be held accountable."
January 11, 2005
CBS Dismisses 4 Over Broadcast on Bush Service
By JACQUES STEINBERG and BILL CARTER
CBS yesterday dismissed four of its top journalists, including a high-ranking news executive, after an independent panel concluded that a September report that raised questions about President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service never should have been broadcast.
The panel concluded that the network's news division, in a dash to beat its competitors, suffered a breakdown in judgment as it rushed the report onto the air on Sept. 8. Among its findings was that the news report was approved by inattentive executives; was delivered by an overworked anchor, Dan Rather; and did not undergo even the most rudimentary fact-checking.
The segment, broadcast on the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes," raised new questions about Mr. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970's. It presented four documents, described as memorandums from the files of his commander, suggesting that Mr. Bush, then a lieutenant, had received preferential treatment. The panel said that the documents had not been properly authenticated, but that it had no evidence they were forgeries.
The panel - Louis D. Boccardi, a former chief executive of The Associated Press, and Dick Thornburgh, a former attorney general of the United States - noted that the CBS News president, Andrew Heyward, had ordered an internal inquiry into the accuracy of the report two days after the segment was broadcast. But the panel found no indication that such an inquiry was pursued.
Nonetheless, Mr. Heyward publicly defended the report in the face of mounting criticism, including comments featured prominently in a new medium, the so-called blogosphere on the Internet.
Mary Mapes, the producer in charge of the segment, was fired. Resignations were demanded from three others, including Betsy West, a senior vice president.
Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS, said that Mr. Heyward had "issued direct instructions to investigate the sourcing of the story" but that his instructions had not been "implemented in a prompt or systematic way." He said Mr. Heyward would remain in his job.
Mr. Rather, who narrated the news report but played only a limited role in assembling it, will remain a CBS correspondent for the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes" - the program that broadcast the troubled news report - as well as the fabled Sunday edition of "60 Minutes." He had previously announced that he would step down as the anchor of "CBS Evening News" in March.
In his statement yesterday, Mr. Moonves said: "As far as the question of reporting is concerned, the bottom line is that much of the Sept. 8th broadcast was wrong, incomplete or unfair. We deeply regret the disservice this flawed '60 Minutes' Wednesday report did to the American public, which has a right to count on CBS News for fairness and accuracy in all it does."
Within CBS's broadcast center in Midtown Manhattan, Mr. Moonves's swift response - as well as the panel's finding of a catastrophic breakdown in internal checks and balances - left many employees expressing bewilderment that so much had gone so wrong in their midst.
Meeting in small groups with supervisors, they debated the merits of various decisions - including the retention of Mr. Heyward - and vowed to continue to pursue the kind of aggressive investigative reporting that had long been the network's trademark, albeit through new layers of scrutiny.
In seeking to cling to a thin reed, several CBS employees said they took heart that the panel had found that no political bias existed within the ranks of the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes" - a charge that had been widely repeated on the Internet.
Because of the nature of the allegations about a sitting president - and because Mr. Rather has long been characterized by the right as someone who periodically shades his journalism to the left - the memos that were the basis for the broadcasts were quickly injected into the presidential campaign.
CBS also said yesterday that it was imposing requirements that senior news division managers extensively review the reporting that goes into news segments before they are broadcast. These include a provision for naming an additional team of reporters to fact-check a segment that has been called into question - rather than leaving that verification to the team producing the segment - and a stipulation that on sensitive stories, "when appropriate," senior management must know not just the name of an anonymous source "but all relevant background that would assist in editorial news decisions."
In his own nine-page statement, Mr. Moonves announced that he had fired Ms. Mapes, the longtime producer. He also demanded the resignations of three other CBS News executives who had overseen the segment: Ms. West, a senior vice president and top deputy to Mr. Heyward; Josh Howard, who became executive producer of the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes" only weeks before it broadcast the segment; and Mary Murphy, his deputy.
Sandra Genelius, a CBS spokeswoman, said it was not immediately clear whether the three had tendered their resignations, but staff members of the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes" said that Mr. Howard and Ms. Murphy appeared at a meeting yesterday morning to thank people and say goodbye. Both were said to be stunned by the decision to force them to resign, having told colleagues in recent weeks that they expected to survive. Ms. Murphy was in tears throughout the meeting, one "60 Minutes" producer said. Ms. West said that she would have no comment on her status.
In his remarks, Mr. Moonves directed some of his sharpest expressions of disappointment at Ms. Mapes. "Her basic reporting was faulty and her responses when questioned led others who trusted her down the wrong road," Mr. Moonves said, a reference to comments she had made to supervisors, in the days leading up to the broadcast, that she could vouch for both the source of the documents and the authenticity of the documents themselves.
In a statement issued to other news organizations late yesterday, Ms. Mapes said she was "shocked by the vitriolic scapegoating in Les Moonves's statement."
"I am very concerned that his actions are motivated by corporate and political considerations - ratings rather than journalism," she added.
When asked about the panel's findings at a briefing, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said: "We felt all along that it was important for CBS to get to the bottom of this. CBS has taken steps to hold people accountable, and we appreciate those steps."
In an interview yesterday, Mr. Moonves said: "I was shocked by the extent of some of the things that went unchecked. I was not surprised at many of the panel's findings, but the fact that none of our experts truthfully authenticated the documents - that was shocking to me."
Mr. Moonves said that he took the report at face value and did not consult with any other executives before deciding to fire Ms. Mapes and demand the three resignations.
The two members of the independent panel said in their report that they were unable to verify the authenticity of the documents cited in the broadcast. They also said that Ms. Mapes misled - or at the least was not completely honest with - her superiors about the origins of the documents or about the results of efforts to verify them. Among the panel's criticisms of Ms. Mapes was that she did not, in its opinion, make enough of an effort to verify the original source of the memorandums or their authenticity.
The panel said that Bill Burkett, the former National Guard officer who gave her the documents, had initially described his source to her as another former Guard officer, George Conn. Ms. Mapes told the panel that she had tried to contact Mr. Conn at an address in Texas, but was unable to. She added that it was her understanding that he was living in Germany, but she said that she did not try to find him there.
"It appears to the panel that a crash to air the story was under way without effective consideration of the chain of custody" of the memorandums, Mr. Boccardi and Mr. Thornburgh wrote.
The panelists said that there was a cascade of warning signs that, if heeded, could have prevented the broadcast of the report or at least delayed it considerably. The panelists concluded that there was little internal oversight or control within the news division to ensure that fact-checking took place.
"The investigation quickly identified considerable and fundamental deficiencies relating to the reporting and production of the Sept. 8 segment and the statements and news reports during the aftermath," the panelists wrote.
"These problems were caused primarily by a myopic zeal to be the first news organization to broadcast what was believed to be a new story about President Bush's Texas Air National Guard service, and the rigid and blind defense of the segment after it aired despite numerous indications of its shortcomings."
The panelists painted a portrait of the corporate culture within the news organization that stood in stark contrast to its heyday, when its public face was Edward R. Murrow in the 1950's and Walter Cronkite in the late 1960's and 1970's.
While the panelists said they could find no evidence that the network prepared and broadcast the report to hurt the president's re-election campaign, they cited one instance in which Ms. Mapes "created the appearance of a political bias." In the reporting phase, Ms. Mapes reached out to the campaign of Senator John Kerry, Mr. Bush's Democratic opponent, and asked that it contact the former National Guard officer who would later be identified as the source of the documents.
"The panel reviewed this issue and found certain actions that could support such charges," the panelists wrote. "However, the panel cannot conclude that a political agenda at '60 Minutes' Wednesday drove either the timing of the airing of the segment or its content."
The panel was somewhat tempered in its criticism of Mr. Rather. While it acknowledged that he was stretched to the limit while reporting aspects of the Guard segment - he had left the scene of Hurricane Frances in Florida to do an interview - it described him as a distracted participant who did not even watch the completed segment before it was broadcast.
The panel was, however, sharply critical of Mr. Rather's use of his perch on "CBS Evening News" to mount a spirited defense of documents - said to be memorandums from the files of Mr. Bush's commander in the Texas Air National Guard - used to buttress the news report.
The panel also criticized the substance of Mr. Rather's on-air apology on Sept. 20, saying that he had largely blamed Mr. Burkett for misleading the network by changing his account of how he had come to obtain the documents.
"The panel finds this statement confusing, since "60 Minutes" Wednesday had never verified the original source from whom Lieutenant Colonel Burkett initially said he received the documents," the report said.
Though Mr. Rather did not participate in vetting the story, the panelists said that he told them that he "still believes that the content of the documents is accurate."
Mr. Rather, who returned Sunday night from a reporting trip to Asia covering the aftermath of the tsunami, did not return a message seeking comment that was left with an assistant. He was replaced as anchor of "CBS Evening News" last night by Bob Schieffer, the host of the Sunday program "Face the Nation." Mr. Schieffer did not explain Mr. Rather's absence, other than to say, "Dan will be back tomorrow."
Mr. Schieffer then introduced the lead segment on the broadcast, in which a correspondent provided a blistering recitation of the day's developments at CBS.
The panel report issued yesterday found fault with those network executives who, they said, should have pressed Ms. Mapes to verify a document trail - but did not. The panel suggested that those executives had been cowed, to some extent, by the track record and celebrity of Mr. Rather and Ms. Mapes, who collaborated earlier in the year on a report that first broadcast photographs of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
In her statement released to news organizations yesterday, Ms. Mapes said: "It is noteworthy the panel did not conclude that these documents are false."
Instead, she said that the timing of the segment - it was broadcast less than a week after she obtained the bulk of the documents - was dictated not by her but by her superiors, including Mr. Heyward.
She added: "If there was a journalistic crime committed here, it was not by me."
Spinning Media for Government
by Chris Raphael, Special to CorpWatch, February 10th, 2005
A television pundit gets secret payments to promote a new United States government education policy. Columnists are paid to provide support for a White House marriage stance. Actresses play news reporters to promote drug laws. A system of ranking reporters who criticize official policy. These, and possibly many other public relations stunts, are some examples of publicity contracts paid for by the U.S. government, which has spent more than a quarter billion dollars on public relations in the past four years.
For example Armstrong Williams, a conservative African-American broadcaster, was paid $240,000 to produce advertisements on the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and plug the law in his syndicated television broadcasts. (see Leaving Children Behind)
The deal was brokered by Ketchum public relations, a subsidiary of media giant Omnicom, and approved by the U.S. Department of Education (DoE). In addition to the Williams contract, Ketchum was also paid $700,000 to rate media coverage of NCLB and produce video news releases on the law.
When the news of the Williams deal became public, Democratic members of Congress took a look at government contracts with PR firms, and the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform produced some quick but startling numbers. In a January report, the committee found that federal agencies spent more than $250 million on contracts with PR agencies between 2001 and 2004 - nearly twice as much as the $128 million that Clinton spent between 1997 and 2001.
"There used to be a time when our government would let the facts speak for themselves," lamented Richard Durbin, a Democratic senator from Illinois, during one Congressional debate. "It apparently is the position of the Bush administration that the facts in and of themselves are not articulate."
Two more questionable examples have cropped up since the Williams flap. Conservative columnists Maggie Gallagher, whose writing is distributed by Universal Press Syndicate (which also publishes the Dear Abby column and comic strips like Doonesbury, Calvin & Hobbes and Garfield) and Mike McManus (whose work appears in over 50 newspapers like the Birmingham News in Alabama) were exposed as having been on the payroll of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Both columnists agreed to work on behalf of the Bush Administration efforts to promote marriage.
While President George Bush officially denounced the practice of government agencies paying commentators, it is yet to be seen whether the scandal will lead to any lasting ethical change on the part of some in the PR industry, where the need to identify political and ideological allies is routine practice, or on the part of the government, which has been historically concerned with the need to flash "positive" messages and propaganda -- into what they perceive as a negative and hostile media landscape. Ketchum and the DoE, for instance, initially defended the Williams arrangement.
Ketchum video news releases
Ketchum's video news releases (VNRs) on the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 (MMA) were found to be "covert propaganda" in a 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Ketchum hired a sub-contractor to produce VNRs for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services' (CMS) in the Health and Human Services Department.
VNRs provide video footage, graphics and audio edited together into a package directly to television stations in a manner that allows them to easily pick any of the component elements and create their own story.
The VNRs even featured a "reporter", Karen Ryan, who was actually a public relations professional, and the releases contained "a favorable report on the effects [of the law] on Medicare beneficiaries." Some broadcast stations ran the story unedited.
The GAO determined that although the videos were clearly labeled, the news story inside was produced in such a way that television viewers could not distinguish the "source" of the news. "The entire story package was developed with appropriated funds but [is made to] appear to be an independent news story," the GAO wrote.
The GAO previously found that video news releases produced for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) were also propaganda. While both agencies have discontinued their use of the VNRs, the Health and Human Services Department continues to use them, said Bill Pierce, an HHS spokesperson.
"We can't be responsible for journalistic ethics," he said. Pierce added that HHS was keeping the GAO findings in mind, though the GAO report didn't have a "dramatic" effect on the way the department used video releases.
"It's kind of a dead letter," said ONDCP spokesperson Tom Riley of the January GAO report which referred to the agency's VNRs as propaganda. "We stopped doing VNRs last year, haven't done any since then, and have no plans to use them in the future."
According to the House report, companies owned by New York-based Omnicom have a virtual monopoly -- 89 percent -- of government PR contracts awarded between 2001 and 2004. The company, whose headquarters are on Madison Avenue, the heart of the advertising industry, reeled in $8.6 billion in revenue in 2003 from clients like Kodak, Dow Chemical and Heinz ketchup.
Ketchum held $97 million, one-third of the total, followed by the Matthews Media Group ($52 million), Fleishman-Hillard ($41 million) and Porter Novelli ($33 million).
While it is not known how many of these contracts involve practices such as the Williams deal, the government seems to take the scandal seriously. The list of agencies looking into PR contracts, in one way or the other, includes the Government Accountability Office, the Inspector General, the Federal Communications Commission, Congress and the Pentagon.
Ketchum, which has earned numerous Silver Anvils (the industry's highest honor) from the Public Relations Society of America as well as a 2002 "Agency of the Year" award from PR Week, the popular industry magazine, initially responded to the incident via a January 13 PR Week editorial by Ray Kotcher, chief executive officer of Ketchum. In the editorial, Kotcher put a positive spin on the scandal, calling it a "transformational event." He referred to Williams' behavior as "an oversight" and implied that the scandal was politically motivated.
"It is no coincidence that this activity occurred in Washington," Kotcher wrote, "where political divisiveness is at an all-time high."
He also suggested the rise of punditry had something to do with the whole affair:
"Williams' unusual role as both a pundit and information source - through his ad-production firm - would seem to blur the lines that once so clearly defined journalism and news organizations," Kothcer wrote. "I'm not sure even the media itself can agree anymore on how to strictly define and distinguish journalists and news organizations."
As reporters hounded the firm, Ketchum released a later statement saying it had made a "lapse in judgment" -- but didn't make the statement available on its website, as Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University noted. In his blog, PressThink, Rosen wrote that Ketchum's site "shows no awareness at all that it is the 'live' public face of a company in the news and under pressure from peers. This would be mildly comical in the case of a chemical company. It is more amusing, and ironic in the instance of a public relations agency fighting for its reputation ..."
In another curious development, a site on http://www.ketchum.com that touts the virtues of influencing public opinion leaders - through a special tool Ketchum calls "Influencer Relationship Management" - is no longer working.
Snapshots of the site on Wayback Machine (see http://www.archive.org and type in http://www.ketchum.com/IRM in the search bar) describe how the system works by "influencing the influencers." The premise of Ketchum's system, described in a press release and in snapshots of the site on Wayback Machine, is that there are a select group of people - such as elite media and analysts -- who mold public opinion. Through an "IRM portal," clients can view the opinions of these influencers on an "attitude" scale. A snapshot of an "IRM portal" even seems to promise pictures of who these "influencers" are.
The DoE did not return calls seeking comment on whether they had access to the IRM portal, but Ketchum's work for the DoE did entail identifying the reporters who routinely covered the NCLB Act, and ranking their stories.
According to documents obtained by People for the American Way, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit, Ketchum produced benchmark media analyses for the DoE showing how different newspapers and reporters in different states covered the NCLB Act. Stories were rated on a scale of 0 to 100 (with 100 being an "ideal media mention"), though some stories "to allow for negative press," as Ketchum put it -- earned marks less than zero.
Positive marks were given to stories that, among other things, mentioned that NCLB would "hold schools accountable for student's success," would "close the achievement gap," or generally mentioned that the Bush administration or the Republican party was "committed to education." Negative marks were given to stories which mentioned that 100 percent compliance with NCLB would be unrealistic, that the program is not properly funded, or that the Bush administration was interfering with state education duties.
The media analyses went on to rate the stories of reporters who covered NCLB most often. Low-ranked stories included few positive messages or else quoted NCLB critics, such as the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers. An op-ed by former Education Secretary Rod Paige earned the highest marks. The lowest marks? In one instance, Kenneth Remsen, a school principal who wrote a column for Vermont's Burlington Free Press, received a mark of -70 for containing "12 negative messages" in an article Ketchum described as "creative conceit."
This type of ranking isn't new. Former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary found herself in a major flap in 1995, when it was revealed the Department of Energy hired a public relations firm to rank newspapers and reporters on department coverage. Today, it appears to have become standard practice within many PR firms.
"They (government agencies) can develop any kind of assessment they want," says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. She doesn't see the practice of ranking reporters or news coverage as problematic -- unless it leads government agencies to deny reporters access. She noted the case of Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, who has directed his staff and 19 state agencies to stop speaking with two reporters from the Baltimore Sun.
Kevin Elliott, manager of PR giant Hill & Knowlton's San Francisco office, said ratings of media coverage are often produced because, from a public relations perspective, "it's important to know which reporters to reach out to on a story."
"A reason an organization might want to rank reporters is to track things like bias, accuracy...to see if the reporter understood the issue and had all the information," said Mark Weiner, chief executive officer of Delahaye Medialink Worldwide, a media marketing and research firm. Technologies such as news database Lexis-Nexis, he added, have made the news-crunching task easier to perform.
The DoE did not return calls or an e-mail seeking comment, but told the Associated Press that the rankings did not influence how the department treated reporters. The Government Accountability Office is reportedly looking into how the ratings were used.
Reporter Greg Toppo of USA Today, which originally broke the Armstrong Williams story with a Freedom of Information Act request, said he had "no idea" what the DoE "was trying to accomplish." In one analysis Ketchum produced, Toppo was given a score of 2 points for six articles that he produced between April and June of 2003 on NCLB. George Archibald of The Washington Times received a score of -2 points "and he's been generally supportive of NCLB, so the rankings don't make much sense," Toppo said.
"I was told that reporters who scored low would be targeted for some type of 're-education' on NCLB, but no one ever contacted me," Toppo said.
He also noted that the rankings didn't lead to any kind of denial of access from the DoE -- but access, he said, "was pretty poor to begin with."
Triangle of Silence
Omnicom, which holds 1,500 subsidiary agencies in public relations, advertising and other media industries, was also silent. A spokesperson in their New York office would only say that Ketchum was bound by Omnicom's code of conduct, and referred all other calls to Ketchum, which did not return numerous calls and e-mails from CorpWatch. Ketchum has also referred other reporters to the DoE. But the DoE - which has defended the Williams arrangement while simultaneously pledging to get to the bottom of it - also did not return calls for comment.
Jack O'Dwyer, whose PR news website http://www.odwyerpr.com has been reporting on the Williams scandal, said he and his site have been playing the role of a default PR firm for Ketchum and Omnicom. He says has been handling media calls for the company "supplying basic information, documents, and background including the history of PR and the major trends of the past few decades." The companies might think twice about letting O'Dwyer handle their PR: He isn't putting a positive spin on things, harrying both Ketchum and Omnicom in editorials such as "Heads Should Roll."
PR Industry Denounces Ketchum
While the responses from Ketchum and Omnicom to the scandal were muted, the outcry from some in the PR industry itself was unequivocally clear. Richard Edelman, chief executive officer of Edelman Worldwide, the largest independent public relations firm, called the Williams incident "profoundly depressing." He noted in his blog that advertising pays for space -- but PR "is supposed to earn it."
"We are being asked to believe that the problem is convergence," Edelman continued, "that the blurring of the lines between advertising and PR is a function of technology and immediate access to information." He disagreed with this rational, adding, "the response from several key members of the PR establishment is frankly very disappointing."
Elliot Sloane, chief executive officer of Sloane & Company public relations, wrote that he withdrew his firm's membership in the Council of Public Relations Firms after he said the agency laid the blame at Williams' feet. Sloane called the response "tepid" and "apologetic," although the Council has since said the kind of arrangement Ketchum had with Williams was "unacceptable."
The Williams scandal comes at a bad time for the PR industry, which is under pressure from Wall Street to meet monthly financial goals and needs to "produce results almost immediately," according to Judith Phair, president of the Public Relations Society of America.
At the same time, the industry is dealing with two major over-billing trials involving government agencies. In Los Angeles, John Stodder, a former Fleishman-Hillard senior vice president, has been indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly helping to submit false bills that defrauded $250,000 from the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, which held a $3 million annual contract with Fleishman-Hillard. Stodder has pled not guilty to numerous counts of wire fraud.
Elsewhere, in New York, a trial is underway in which two Ogilvy & Mather employees – Shona Seifert and Thomas Early -- have been accused of helping over-bill PR work to disguise a $3 million shortfall in labor costs on an account for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The government settled a civil case against the firm in 2002 for $1.8 million.
Journalists" on UN Payroll - Unbiased Reporting Impossible
Cliff Kincaid, Accuracy in Media, February 15, 2005
WASHINGTON -- Accuracy in Media (AIM) charged today that the United Nations has been paying journalists to promote its message in the U.S. and abroad, and that billionaires George Soros and Ted Turner have been paying for journalism prizes to make pro-U.N. reporters look good. AIM editor Cliff Kincaid urged the U.N. and any journalists on its payroll to completely come clean by disclosing how much money has changed hands.
In a special report posted on the AIM website (www.aim.org), Kincaid cited direct evidence of U.N. money going to a past president of the U.N. Correspondents Association (UNCA). He said that a key U.N. official has admitted paying other journalists but that she refuses to name names or amounts. Kincaid also cited financial contributions to UNCA from organizations associated with billionaires George Soros and Ted Turner. The money underwrites the awarding of journalism prizes to those covering the U.N.
For merely asking questions about these matters, Kincaid said that he has been personally attacked as "far-right" and a "U.N. basher." He previously revealed that Linda Fasulo, U.N. correspondent for NBC News, had taken $26,000 from the pro-U.N. lobby to write a book favorable to the world body and its Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.
"It was right to condemn conservative commentator Armstrong Williams for taking federal money to promote Bush Administration policies," said Kincaid. "We should also condemn the U.N. for hiring and using journalists to spread its propaganda."
Accuracy In Media (AIM) is a non-profit, grassroots citizens watchdog of the news media that critiques botched and bungled news stories and sets the record straight on important issues that have received slanted coverage.
September 30, 2005
Audit Assails the White House for Public Relations Spending
By ROBERT PEAR
WASHINGTON, Sept. 30 - Federal auditors said today that the Bush administration had violated the law by purchasing favorable news coverage of President Bush's education policies, by making payments to the conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and by hiring a public relations company to analyze media perceptions of the Republican Party.
In a blistering report, the investigators, from the Government Accountability Office, said the administration had disseminated "covert propaganda" inside the United States, in violation of a longstanding, explicit statutory ban.
The contract with Mr. Williams and the general contours of the administration's public relations campaign had been known for months. The report today provided the first definitive ruling on the legality of the activities.
Lawyers from the G.A.O., an independent nonpartisan arm of Congress, found that the Bush administration had systematically analyzed news articles to see if they carried the message, "The Bush administration/the G.O.P. is committed to education."
The auditors declared: "We see no use for such information except for partisan political purposes. Engaging in a purely political activity such as this is not a proper use of appropriated funds."
The G.A.O. also assailed the Education Department for telling Ketchum Inc., a large public relations company, to pay Mr. Williams for newspaper columns and television appearances praising Mr. Bush's education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act.
When that arrangement became publicly known, it set off widespread criticism. At a news conference in January, Mr. Bush said: "We will not be paying commentators to advance our agenda. Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet."
But more recently the Education Department defended its payments to Mr. Williams, saying his commentaries were "no more than the legitimate dissemination of information to the public."
The G.A.O. said the Education Department had no money or authority to "procure favorable commentary in violation of the publicity or propaganda prohibition" in federal law.
In the course of its work, the accountability office discovered a previously undisclosed instance in which the Education Department had commissioned a newspaper article. The article, on the "declining science literacy of students," was distributed by the North American Precis Syndicate and appeared in numerous small newspapers around the country. Readers were not informed of the government's role in writing of the article.
The auditors also denounced a prepackaged television news story disseminated by the Education Department. The news segment, a "video news release" narrated by a woman named Karen Ryan, said that President Bush's program for providing remedial instruction and tutoring to children "gets an A-plus."
Ms. Ryan also narrated two videos praising the new Medicare drug benefit last year. In those segments, as in the education video, the narrator ended by saying, "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting."
The prepackaged television news segments on education and on Medicare did not inform the audience that they had been prepared and distributed by the government.
The public relations efforts by the Education Department came to light a few weeks before Margaret Spellings was sworn in as secretary in January. SA spokeswoman for the secretary, Susan Aspey, said Ms. Spellings regarded the efforts as "stupid, wrong and ill-advised." She said Ms. Spellings had adopted procedures "to ensure these types of missteps don't happen again."
The investigation by the Government Accountability Office was requested by Senators Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, both Democrats.
Mr. Lautenberg expressed concern about a section of the G.A.O. report in which federal investigators said they could not find records to confirm that Mr. Williams had performed all the activities for which he billed the government.
The Education Department said it had paid Ketchum $186,000 for services performed by Mr. Williams's company. But it could not provide transcripts of speeches, copies of articles or records of other services performed by Mr. Williams, the G.A.O. said.
In March, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel said that federal agencies did not have to acknowledge their role in producing television news segments if they were purely factual. The inspector general of the Education Department reiterated that position earlier this month.
But the Government Accountability Office said today: "The failure of an agency to identify itself as the source of a prepackaged news story misleads the viewing public by encouraging the audience to believe that the broadcasting news organization developed the information. The prepackaged news stories are purposefully designed to be indistinguishable from news segments broadcast to the public. When the television viewing public does not know that the stories they watched on television news programs about the government were in fact prepared by the government, the stories are, in this sense, no longer purely factual. The essential fact of attribution is missing."
The G.A.O. said that Mr. Williams's work for the government resulted from a written proposal that he submitted to the Education Department in March 2003. The department directed Ketchum to use Mr. Williams as a regular commentator on Mr. Bush's education policies. Ketchum had a federal contract to help publicize the law, signed by Mr. Bush in 2002.
The Education Department flouted the law by telling Ketchum to use Mr. Williams to "convey a message to the public on behalf of the government, without disclosing to the public that the messengers were acting on the government's behalf and in return for the payment of public funds," the G.A.O. said.
The Education Department spent $38,421 for production and distribution of the video news release and $96,850 for the evaluation of newspaper articles and radio and television programs. Ketchum assigned a score to each article, indicating how frequently and favorably it mentioned specific features of the new education law.
Congress tried to clarify the ban on "covert propaganda" in a spending bill signed by Mr. Bush in May. The law says that no federal money can be used to produce or distribute a prepackaged news story unless the government's role is openly acknowledged. Congress said the law "confirms the opinion of the G.A.O." on this issue.
Media For Democracy Asks President George Bush to Stop Paying News Reporters