FAKE news ought to be left to the professionals at Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. When government gets involved in the dissemination of fake news, the result, though laughable, isn't nearly as funny as what airs on cable television.
Though manufacturing consensus with taxpayer dollars can be an intriguing intellectual exercise, it behooves us to call it what it really is: propaganda.
When conservative pundit Armstrong Williams was exposed as a covert shill for the No Child Left Behind program, only the amount of money he got was a surprise. For hawking the federal program in his syndicated column and radio show, the Department of Education funneled $241,000 to Mr. Williams through a public relations firm.
More recently, it was revealed that columnist Maggie Gallagher had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to produce promotional materials about President Bush's marriage initiative - while she was writing columns supporting the measure for the National Review online.
Fortunately, the Government Accountability Office takes as dim a view of state-sponsored propaganda. The investigative arm of Congress is looking into whether the Bush Administration misspent taxpayer dollars in a clumsy attempt to influence public debate. It's clear that the Education Department violated its own rules by paying a journalist to promote controversial policy issues on its behalf, and the same appears to be the case with HHS. The Federal Communications Commission also is investigating.
The Williams affair follows a shameful pattern. Previously, the GAO cited the administration for producing anti-drug campaign video news releases and fake news reports about prescription drug benefits under Medicare. Everything about the news releases was phony, including the fake journalist "reporting" the initiatives on camera.
Besides being an insult to our intelligence, propaganda is corrosive to democracy. It is to no one's advantage to wonder if pundits are on the take when they're arguing passionately about the issues.
President Bush has banned payments to commentators, claiming the White House didn't know about the practice. But we're hoping that the President and his appointees will begin to understand what they obviously hadn't grasped before - that maintaining department integrity and pursuing administration goals aren't mutually exclusive.