Bush administration officials broke the law when they paid a reporter to favorably portray Bush education policies, according to a report released in October by the Government Accountability Office.
The report is the first effort by the congressional agency to investigate the legality of the sponsored news coverage.
The Bush administration paid conservative journalist Armstrong Williams to describe the administration as being “committed to education,” the report said.
The Department of Education is reported to have paid $186,000 to Ketchum Inc., a public relations firm, for hiring Williams to comment on various education issues including the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush administration’s flagship education program.
The Department of Education said in a statement that the news coverage by Williams was “no more than the legitimate dissemination of information to the public.”
Other actions carried out through Ketchum for the Bush administration include the release of newspaper articles and television news segments in which the No Child Left Behind Act was highly praised.
The report criticized the release of three television news segments reported by a woman named Karen Ryan, who praised Bush for his education and Medicare policies.
The Government Accountability Office said the releases were propaganda intended to “covey the 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 investigation’s original proponents, Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., are sponsoring a bill that would rephrase the language in federal limits on taxpayer-funded publicity efforts.
The “Stop Government Propaganda Act” would prohibit the government from sponsoring “a news release or other publication or . any audio or visual presentation that does not continuously and clearly identify the government agency directly or indirectly financially responsible for the message.”
The report did not suggest a penalty for the groups involved.
According to current law, “no federal money may be used to produce or distribute a news story unless the government’s role is openly acknowledged,” a New York Times article said.
The Bush administration had earlier denied its direct involvement paying Williams for positive news coverage.
“I know the headline said that the White House – basically implied that it was the White House, and it wasn’t,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said in a press briefing in January of this year.
Auditors will continue to investigate the “covert propaganda,” officials said.
“The failure of an agency to identify itself as the source of a pre-packaged news story misleads the viewing public by encouraging the audience to believe that the broadcasting news organization developed the information,” the Government Accountability Office said in its report.