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Bush's War on the Press | The Nation

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Bush's War on the Press

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Fake News

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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The Bush Administration has invested untold millions in video "news releases" that disguise themselves as genuine news reports and are frequently broadcast by irresponsible local news programs. In three separate opinions in the past year, the Congressional Government Accountability Office held that government-made news segments may constitute improper "covert propaganda" even if their origin is made clear to television stations. Yet the Administration has rejected these rulings, fortified by a Justice Department opinion that insists that the reports are purely informational. Of course, the Administration's idea of "purely informational" is sufficiently elastic to stretch all the way from the White House to Ahmad Chalabi's house. As the New York Times reported, a "jubilant" Iraqi-American chanting "Thank you, Bush. Thank you, USA" is deemed to fall into this category, as is a report of "another success" in the Administration's "drive to strengthen aviation security" in which the "reporter" called the effort "one of the most remarkable campaigns in aviation history." A third segment, broadcast in January, described the Administration's commitment to opening markets for American farmers. The reports are clearly designed to simulate legitimate news programming. A now-infamous report narrated by PR flack Karen Ryan for the Department of Health and Human Services praising the benefits of the new Medicare bill imitated a real news report by having her sign off as "Karen Ryan, reporting" and by not identifying the story's source. The Clinton Administration made use of video "news releases" as well, but now the government's investment in them appears to have nearly doubled, as has its brazenness.

These phony news reports have much in common with stage-managed "public" presidential events that bar all potential dissenters and script virtually every utterance. In March, for instance, three people found themselves kicked out of a Bush Social Security event because of a bumper sticker on their car in the parking lot that read No More Blood for Oil. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said a volunteer asked the three to leave "out of concern they might try to disrupt the event," but, of course, no evidence of any potential disruption could be found save the "thought crime" of coming to the event with an antiwar bumper sticker on a car. This was not, recall, a Bush/Cheney '04 campaign event but a presidential forum to discuss the future of Social Security. (Previously citizens had been kept out of Bush events because of clothing deemed inappropriate or for reasons unexplained, as when most of a group of forty-two, barred from an event in Fargo, North Dakota, later discovered that what they had in common was membership on a Howard Dean meetup.com list.)

In addition to creating its own mediated version of reality, the Administration has also invested considerable resources in corrupting members of the media with cash payments, in what George Miller, ranking Democrat on the Committee on Education and the Workforce, has termed a "potentially criminal mismanagement of expensive contracts." These include hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to right-wing pundits Armstrong Williams ($240,000), Maggie Gallagher ($21,000) and Michael McManus ($10,000), the conservative author of the syndicated column "Ethics & Religion," who, like Gallagher, was paid to help promote a marriage initiative. And yet the resulting scandal has benefited the Administration's war on the press by damaging journalism's public image and reinforcing the false belief that everyone in the media is somehow "on the take."

Undoubtedly the Administration's most bizarre effort to manipulate the media was its embrace of former gay prostitute James Guckert, aka Jeff Gannon, who showed up at the White House under a phony name and worked for a right-wing shell operation that acted less like a news organization than an arm of the Republican National Committee, publishing articles like "Kerry Could Become First Gay President." Gannon's ostensible employer, Talon News Service, employed an editor in chief, Bobby Eberle, who served as a delegate to the 1996, 1998 and 2000 Texas Republican Conventions and to the 2000 Republican National Convention and enjoyed many direct connections to Republican and right-wing organizations. Press secretary McClellan would often call on Gannon when he wanted to extricate himself from a particularly effective line of questioning. The words "Go ahead, Jeff," signaled that the press corps could be getting into an area that might embarrass the White House--or could be discovering a nugget of genuine news. Gannon's ploy might have continued indefinitely had the President not helped make him famous by calling on him at a January 26 news conference in order to be served up a softball that mocked Democrats for being "divorced from reality." Once exposed, Gannon resigned and Talon folded up shop like a rolled-up CIA cover-op. As James Pinkerton, an official in both the Reagan and Bush I White House, admitted on Fox News, getting the kind of clearance Gannon did in this security atmosphere must have required "an incredible amount of intervention from somebody high up in the White House," that it had to be "conscious" and that "some investigation should proceed, and they should find that out." As Frank Rich observed, "Given an all-Republican government, the only investigation possible will have to come from the press."

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