Conservative pundit Armstrong Williams admits to taking almost a quarter of a million dollars from the U.S. government to promote President Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation and the GAO scolds the Bush administration for the second time for using prepackaged video news releases the media runs as news. [includes rush transcript]
The Bush administration paid prominent African American pundit Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote its controversial No Child Left Behind legislation on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same.
Williams was required "to regularly comment on No Child Left Behind during the course of his broadcasts," and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004.
His contract was part of a 1 million dollar government deal with public relations firm Ketchum that produced fake, prepackaged new reports–known as video news releases, or VNRs–that were designed to look like news reports and were used to promote No Child Left Behind. The Bush administration used similar releases last year to promote its Medicare prescription drug plan, prompting a scolding from the Government Accountability Office, which called them an illegal use of taxpayers" dollars.
Just last week, the GAO scolded the Bush administration a second time for distributing VNRs, this time produced by the Office of National Drug Control Policy concerning the dangers of marijuana. They featured former reporter Mike Morris, and were aired, at least in part, on 300 news shows. The GAO called it "illegal government propaganda." This is an excerpt of that video news release.
- Excerpt of Anti-Drug Video News Release by Gourvitz Communications.
An excerpt of a video news release paid for with taxpayers dollars by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. After the news of Armstrong Williams and the video news releases emerged, Democratic leaders in Congress called on President Bush to stop using "covert propaganda to influence public opinion."
- Steve Rendall, Senior Analyst, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: The Bush administration paid a prominent pundit, Armstrong Williams, close to a quarter of a million dollars to promote its controversial No Child Left Behind Act on his nationally syndicated TV show to urge other black journalists as well to do the same. Williams was required to, quote, "regularly comment on No Child Left Behind during the course of his broadcast and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004. His contract was part of a million dollar government deal with public relations firm, Ketchum, that produced fake, prepackaged news reports known as video news releases, or VNRs, that were designed to look like news reports, and were used to promote No Child Left Behind. The Bush administration used similar releases last year to promote its Medicare prescription drug plan, prompting a scolding from the Government Accountability Office which called them, "an illegal use of taxpayer dollars." Just last week, the G.A.O scolded the Bush administration a second time for distributing VNRs, this time produced by the Office of National Drug Control Policy concerning the dangers of marijuana. They featured former reporter, Mike Morris, and were aired, at least in part, on 300 news show. The G.A.O called it, quote, "illegal government propaganda." This is an excerpt of that video news release.
MIKE MORRIS: The good news is that parents can make a difference. Research shows that two-thirds of teens say that upsetting their parents or losing the respect of family and friends is one of the main reasons they don’t smoke marijuana or use other drugs. So, what can parents do?
MARIJUANA "EXPERT": There are a number of things that parents can do to prevent their kids from getting involved with marijuana. One of them is they need to set rules and set consequences with those rules in their household. They also need to understand the facts about marijuana and to share those and express those with their children. They need to make sure that they know who their children are hanging out with, make sure that they know where they are at all times, and then they also need to engage their children perhaps in summer activities to keep them busy so they don’t have too much free time on their hands. And most of all, they need to reserve time to spend time family and quality time together, and also save time to communicate one-on-one with their children.
ANOTHER "EXPERT": The principle rule about good parenthood in the summer, which will prevent not only marijuana use but other kinds of unacceptable behavior is really about common sense, about giving kids good counsel, about being present in their lives every day and every week in some substantial way.
MIKE MORRIS:For more information about marijuana and advice on raising drug-free teens, visit the anti-drug.com. This is Mike Morris reporting.
AMY GOODMAN: That video news release made by Gourvitz Communications, commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and on Gourvitz’s website they say: "Imagine the credibility to be gained by having your message delivered by a trusted news anchor as opposed to a paid commercial spot, and you begin to realize the power of Broadcast Public Relations." Steve Rendall is with us of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Let’s start with Armstrong Williams and move into these VNRs, video news releases.
STEVE RENDALL: Well, I think before starting with Armstrong Williams we have to — the big news here is that the White House, that the government, is running a domestic propaganda operation secretly targeting the American people. Whether you’re talking about Armstrong Williams misrepresenting himself as an independent commentator and thinker when he’s really working for the government, or you’re talking about these news segments, which — these video news releases that are being run as news segments when they really are White House propaganda, that’s the big story. The story about Armstrong Williams is — it’s a sad story. It’s a conservative pundit who has — who’s selling his — his opinions to the White House. He is acting as a secret agent of the government to spread the — to try to persuade people to go along with government programs. This isn’t the first time this has happened. It began, by the way, in the Clinton administration with anti-drug messages that were being worked into — into television dramas and such. That’s where it started. The Bush administration though this po — under the Bush administration the policy has bloomed. You’ve had Armstrong Williams going forth with the No Child Left Behind point. Last year, of course, there was the Medicare prescription drug benefit program. They ran fake news segments on that.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, let’s —- when you say -—
STEVE RENDALL: And now we’re talking about anti-drug — anti-drug messages again.
AMY GOODMAN: When you say they ran fake news segment, I mean, it takes two here to Tango, right?
STEVE RENDALL: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: You have the government trying to put out its message and you have a media that is willing to play it.
STEVE RENDALL: Yes. In the case of — in the case of the video news releases or the "news segments," we need a compliant media. You need a media that’s willing to run these segments either in part or in whole. According to the New York Times, in the most recent spate of these, about 300 — about 22 million viewers were exposed to these segments in whole or in part on about — in about 300 separate airings. In the case of Armstrong Williams, you’re talking about somebody who’s basically a cottage industry. He doesn’t just appear regularly on cable news shows as an independent pundit. He appears regularly on America’s Black Forum on public television. He also has two of his own shows and was using his influence. Al Hunt from CNN and the Wall Street Journal said that he ran into Armstrong Williams in the gym. They work out at the same gym and Williams would implore him to do more about No Child Left Behind. This was a guy who richly deserves some kind of discipline if not to be fired by all of these media outlets.
AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t USA Today, which runs his columns, say they fired him? Was it USA Today?
STEVE RENDALL: The Tribune Media Service which runs his column to about fifty papers fired him.
AMY GOODMAN: Uh-huh.
STEVE RENDALL: There are also — a small television network said they were going to withhold running his stuff until further consideration, and CNN has voiced some concern about using him again. He’s basically lying to viewers. He’s saying, ’I’m an independent thinker and commentator’ when he’s really not. He’s taking money and he’s really speaking for the government.
AMY GOODMAN: These video news releases. I was talking to someone at NBC yesterday who was saying it’s network policy not to use them; but, locally — and if you go to web sites like Gourvitz Communications’, the ones that make these and say 'you get a trusted anchor' — I mean, let’s go back to Morely Safer, right. We did a big story then when he — I believe even Walter Cronkite and Aaron Brown at first were going to be sort of ensnared in this but pulled out when it was exposed — they were also going be the anchors on some of these paid-for, you know, pharmaceutical company sponsored VNRs, but then it was exposed and they pulled out. The ne — the especially local news programs around the country with their staffs getting cut back, they use these VNRs in whole or in part as news stories.
STEVE RENDALL: That’s right, and it’s not clear in many cases whether they’re using the entire thing; but the important thing about journalism is that it be independent. And to use even part of these preproduced video news releases, news segments, if you will (the White House is selling them as 'news segments') is — it shows a lack of independence. They really need to do their own work.
AMY GOODMAN: The whole idea of psy-ops, both abroad and at home, psychological operations, I don’t know if a lot of people realize that, for example, Voice of America is not allowed to be broadcast in the United States because it is propaganda. You can propagandize outside the country but not inside the country. Does this fit into this? Is this why it is illegal for the government to use taxpayer money to put out these false news stories at home?
STEVE RENDALL: From my understanding, besides the media ethics question which we have dealt with already, this is illegal, not just in one way, it’s illegal on a couple of different levels. For one, it’s illegal because the government is using taxpayers’ money without the con — without congressional permission to — to run these operations. Two, from what I understand, it is illegal for the U.S. government to run propaganda campaigns that are not identified as — or to run campaigns selling policy that are not identified as coming from the government. We saw in the — in the mid-eighties, for instance, the Office of Public Diplomacy was shut down because it was found that it was secretly propagandizing the American people. This is not that much different.
AMY GOODMAN: After the news of Armstrong Williams getting paid $240,000 by the U.S. government, and — as well as the video news releases emerged — Democratic leaders in Congress called on President Bush to stop using, quote, "covert propaganda to influence public opinion" and have called for an investigation. People like Nancy Pelosi, California Congressmember, George Miller, David Obey of Wisconsin, and others.
STEVE RENDALL: I think George Miller found a — I can’t recall who it is now, but found a Republican to sign onto that. So it looks like the inspector general may investigate this. And in fact, the Government Accountability Office in the two reprimands, they said that the — that the Bush administration was illegally practicing covert propaganda against the American people. So, they’ve had a ruling from a fairly authoritative source.