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Published: Thursday, 3/24/2005

Who calls it news?

A DISTURBING examination by the New York Times has revealed that the Bush Administration is producing and distributing at taxpayer expense promotions for its policies that appear in the media as news. These "news segments," which end up primarily on television, do not acknowledge that they are government productions.

The target audience of this propaganda is not the Iraqis or other Middle Easterners whose hearts and minds the State Department would like to win. It's you.

Just as deceptive as the administration are some members of the media. Instead of giving stony skepticism to government produced and provided material, hundreds of TV stations have simply gobbled up and run the time-fillers that the government has provided. They have also generally provided viewers no attribution for the source of the material.

This is the moral equivalent of the press reporting as news the claims of the purveyors of exercise machines without revealing who is promoting and trying to sell the purported ab-enhancers and fanny-shrinkers. Bush Administration programs in 20 agencies (including the departments of State, Agriculture, and Defense) have benefited from the TV promotions. Subjects covered have included Medicare and the post-Abu Ghraib training of military prison guards.

Media outlets that have carried the material, presumably saving themselves programming money, include CNN, Fox, Time-Warner, ABC, and the Associated Press. Some programs have included "reporting" from fake journalists such as Karen Ryan, Jennifer Morrow, and Chris Wuerther.

The 1948 Smith-Mundt Act is supposed to prevent the federal government from making and disseminating propaganda directed against the American people. During the Cold War the U.S. Information Agency, whose material was targeted at Communist and non-aligned countries, was strictly forbidden even to broadcast its material at home.

But now, starting with the Clinton Administration and increasing during the Bush years, it is different. Although the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office called the government campaign improper covert propaganda, the White House said that its lawyers at the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Justice considered the practice legal and that the GAO should mind its own business.

Legal or not, the U.S. government should not try to dupe the American people with policy promotions that are packaged as news. Nor should the media succumb to laziness or shoddy ethics in allowing such information to appear as news that it produced.

The unholy marriage of government and media in this practice is fundamentally dishonest. While the government uses taxpayer money to propagandize the population, members of the press collaborate in the action to mislead the American people. Both betray their correct roles, all the while betraying us. It needs to stop - now.

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