Saturday, January 15, 2005

A Rich Man's Will

It's Saturday and I'm reading Frank Rich's weekly column which appears in the Arts section of the New York Times (a regular ritual that I recommend to the fullest). The Rich article itself rests atop a pile of papers and other periodicals that were not given their due during the prior week. My day job only allows for so much extra-curricular reading after all. Rich's muse du jour is the Armstrong Williams propaganda scandal and the wider implications, because the story does not end there. Here is a relevant quote:

In communist East Berlin, one sign of the government's swollen self-regard was the cluttering of public spaces with propaganda banners by which the government praised itself for providing socialism. In Washington today, the Department of Education building is an advertisement for its occupants.

Eight entrances are framed by make-believe little red schoolhouses labeled "No Child Left Behind." High on the building's front are two other advertisements for that 2002 law: large banners hector passers-by to visit

This building-as-billboard is the workplace of those eager beavers who had this brainstorm: Let's pay a million taxpayer dollars to a public relations firm to manufacture enthusiasm for No Child Left Behind, including a $241,000 payment to columnist and television talk-show host Armstrong Williams for his praise of the legislation. The eager beavers are long on energy but short on judgment.
Actually, I think I may have gotten the papers and columnists confused. Forgive my misattribution, but it is Saturday and the labyrinth of newsprint is difficult to navigate. So before you dismiss those paragraphs as yet another hyperbolic screed by a leftist journalist in the hopelessly liberal New York Times, allow me to set the record straight. That rant was actually from conservative stalwart George Will and it appeared in none other than Rupert Murdoch's right wing tabloid flagship, the New York Post.

George Will is amongst a minority of
bloggers, journalists, politicians and pundits on the right brave enough to criticize torture and principled enough to condemn government funded propaganda. Unfortunately, this group is so often drowned out by strident partisan voices who adhere to the black and white, with us or against us version of political discourse. It's as if their beliefs rest atop a teetering house of cards, so thinly supported that if even one plank were removed, the entire structure upon which they were built would come crashing down. So these partisans find themselves in what must be, at least on some level, the uncomfortable position of vigorously defending positions that seem incongruous to the core ideas and philosophical underpinnings of their supposed weltanschuaang - and indeed, the American credo.

George Will is more confident in his beliefs and convictions however. He is more comfortable calling them as he sees them.

When conservatives break with their principles, they seem to become casual about breaking the law, too. Last year the General Accounting Office accused the Department of Health and Human Services of illegal spending when it distributed fake "news" videos which were used by 40 local stations around the country. In them the many benefits of the new Medicare prescription drug entitlement were "reported" by a fake reporter whose actual status - an employee of an HHS subcontractor - was not revealed. The English language version of these "video news releases" concluded, "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting."

This scofflaw enterprise was an appropriate coda to the lawless making of this law. Republican leaders traduced House procedures by holding open the vote for three hours, giving them time to pressure sensibly reluctant legislators. And the Justice Department says the Bush administration broke no law when the Medicare program's chief actuary was told he would be fired if he gave Congress his estimate that the program's 10-year cost would be a third more than the $400 billion the administration claimed.

The GAO has frequently had occasion to insist that taxpayers' money cannot be used when the "obvious purpose is 'self-aggrandizement' or 'puffery.' " Last week it had another occasion, chastising the Office of National Drug Control Policy for also disseminating fake news videos.
Frank Rich, for his part, focuses on the short-shrift this story was given on the purportedly "liberal" CNN - especially on that station's reputed sparker of confrontation, the now defunct "Crossfire" (and good riddance pace Jon Stewart). When Armstrong Williams made an appearance on the show, rather than grilling Williams on his complicity in this perversion of the free press, the resident representative on the left, Paul Begala, seemed more interested in reassuring his guest than getting at the truth. Instead of probing the matter with any type of persistence, Begala thrice hailed Armstrong as a "stand up guy," praising the integrity of a man who contravened the most obvious and basic precepts of journalistic ethics.

Rich also examines the role Robert Novak played from the other side of the divide:

"On the right" was the columnist Robert Novak, who "in the interests of full disclosure" told the audience he is a "personal friend" of Mr. Williams, whom he "greatly" admires as "one of the foremost voices for conservatism in America." Needless to say, Mr. Novak didn't have any tough questions, either, but we should pause a moment to analyze this "Crossfire" co-host's disingenuous use of the term "full disclosure."

Last year Mr. Novak had failed to fully disclose - until others in the press called him on it - that his son is the director of marketing for Regnery, the company that published "Unfit for Command," the Swift boat veterans' anti-Kerry screed that Mr. Novak flogged relentlessly on CNN and elsewhere throughout the campaign. Nor had he fully disclosed, as Mary Jacoby of Salon reported, that Regnery's owner also publishes his subscription newsletter ($297 a year). Nor has Mr. Novak fully disclosed why he has so far eluded any censure in the federal investigation of his outing of a C.I.A. operative, Valerie Plame, while two other reporters, Judith Miller of The Times and Matt Cooper of Time, are facing possible prison terms in the same case. In this context, Mr. Novak's "full disclosure" of his friendship with Mr. Williams is so anomalous that it raised many more questions than it answers.

That he and Mr. Begala would be allowed to lob softballs at a man who may have been a cog in illegal government wrongdoing, on a show produced by television's self-proclaimed "most trusted" news network, is bad enough. That almost no one would notice, let alone protest, is a snapshot of our cultural moment, in which hidden agendas in the presentation of "news" metastasize daily into a Kafkaesque hall of mirrors that could drive even the most earnest American into abject cynicism. But the ugly bigger picture reaches well beyond "Crossfire" and CNN.
While the neutered Begala and the compromised Novak glossed over the details of Williams' role as one epicenter in a larger storm front of government funded information manipulation, for the sake of some sort of pundits code of solidarity perhaps, Rich offers no quarter (echoing the list of abuses cited by George Will and asking the necessary questions about other "Armstrongs").

But we now know that there have been at least three other cases in which federal agencies have succeeded in placing fake news reports on television during the Bush presidency. The Department of Health and Human Services, the Census Bureau and the Office of National Drug Control Policy have all sent out news "reports" in which, to take one example, fake newsmen purport to be "reporting" why the administration's Medicare prescription-drug policy is the best thing to come our way since the Salk vaccine. So far two Government Accountability Office investigations have found that these Orwellian stunts violated federal law that prohibits "covert propaganda" purchased with taxpayers' money. But the Williams case is the first one in which a well-known talking head has been recruited as the public face for the fake news instead of bogus correspondents (recruited from p.r. companies) with generic eyewitness-news team names like Karen Ryan and Mike Morris.

Or is Mr. Williams merely the first one of his ilk to be exposed? Every time this administration puts out fiction through the news media - the "Rambo" exploits of Jessica Lynch, the initial cover-up of Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire - it's assumed that a credulous and excessively deferential press was duped. But might there be more paid agents at loose in the media machine? In response to questions at the White House, Mr. McClellan has said that he is "not aware" of any other such case and that he hasn't "heard" whether the administration's senior staff knew of the Williams contract - nondenial denials with miles of wiggle room. Mr. Williams, meanwhile, has told both James Rainey of The Los Angeles Times and David Corn of The Nation that he has "no doubt" that there are "others" like him being paid for purveying administration propaganda and that "this happens all the time."
Rich also brings the journalism to the journalists, and peels off the thin layer of spin put up to satisfy the shallow delving of the major networks and the 24 hour cable venues.

Mr. Williams has repeatedly said in his damage-control press appearances that...he made the mistake of taking the payola because he wasn't part of the "media elite" and therefore didn't know "the rules and guidelines" of journalistic conflict-of-interest. His own public record tells us another story entirely....for a man who purports to have learned of media ethics only this month, Mr. Williams has spent an undue amount of time appearing as a media ethicist on both CNN and the cable news networks of NBC.

He took to CNN last October to give his own critique of the CBS News scandal, pointing out that the producer of the Bush-National Guard story, Mary Mapes, was guilty of a conflict of interest because she introduced her source, the anti-Bush partisan Bill Burkett, to a Kerry campaign operative, Joe Lockhart. In this Mr. Williams's judgment was correct, but grave as Ms. Mapes's infraction was, it isn't quite in the same league as receiving $240,000 from the United States Treasury to propagandize for the Bush campaign on camera. Mr. Williams also appeared with Alan Murray on CNBC to trash Kitty Kelley's book on the Bush family, on CNN to accuse the media of being Michael Moore's "p.r. machine" and on Tina Brown's CNBC talk show to lambaste Mr. Stewart for doing a "puff interview" with John Kerry on "The Daily Show" (which Mr. Williams, unsurprisingly, seems to think is a real, not a fake, news program).

But perhaps the most fascinating Williams TV appearance took place in December 2003, the same month that he was first contracted by the government to receive his payoffs. At a time when no one in television news could get an interview with Dick Cheney, Mr. Williams, of all "journalists," was rewarded with an extended sit-down with the vice president for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a nationwide owner of local stations affiliated with all the major networks. In that chat, Mr. Cheney criticized the press for its coverage of Halliburton and denounced "cheap shot journalism" in which "the press portray themselves as objective observers of the passing scene, when they obviously are not objective."

This is a scenario out of "The Manchurian Candidate." Here we find Mr. Cheney criticizing the press for a sin his own government was at that same moment signing up Mr. Williams to commit. The interview is broadcast by the same company that would later order its ABC affiliates to ban Ted Koppel's "Nightline" recitation of American casualties in Iraq and then propose showing an anti-Kerry documentary, "Stolen Honor," under the rubric of "news" in prime time just before Election Day. (After fierce criticism, Sinclair retreated from that plan.) Thus the Williams interview with the vice president, implicitly presented as an example of the kind of "objective" news Mr. Cheney endorses, was in reality a completely subjective, bought-and-paid-for fake news event for a broadcast company that barely bothers to fake objectivity and both of whose chief executives were major contributors to the Bush-Cheney campaign. The Soviets couldn't have constructed a more ingenious or insidious plot to bamboozle the citizenry.
In that final paragraph, at last, we see that the intractable right/left divide has once again reared its ugly head. Whereas George Will compared the Bush administration's tactics to the propaganda propagated under the East German communist regime, Rich likens the Bush team's approach to the Soviet method. So much for my paean to non-partisan concurrence and honest appraisals. I guess Will and Rich will just have to agree to disagree.

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