Pay to Play

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The past several weeks have seen a steady stream of stories that have exposed the right-wing media machine. The first example came in early January, when it was revealed that commentator Armstrong Williams was paid $241,000 by the Education Department to help promote President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act in his syndicated column and television appearances. Later in the month, Maggie Gallagher, herself a syndicated columnist, was found to have been paid $21,500 by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to publicize and promote the president's marriage initiative in 2002. As part of her contract, she drafted a magazine article for an HHS official, wrote brochures for the program and briefed department officials about the program. Another contract which extended into 2003 paid her an additional $20,000 from a Justice Department grant to the National Fatherhood Initiative for writing a report for the organization.

In some ways, Gallagher's payola scheme wasn't as damning (or expensive) as Williams's. But like him, she seemed to forget that no matter what protestations she may make to the contrary, she is also a journalist, and as such is expected to disclose – or turn down – contracts which may unduly influence her work. While both feigned surprise at the uproar and maintained that they had done nothing wrong, it's hard to imagine that Williams and Gallagher didn't know exactly what they were doing. They both filed stories extolling the virtues of the very programs they were paid to support, while also appearing on television to promote the administration line – all while "forgetting" to disclose that they were on the government payroll.

Completing the trifecta in late January was the case of Mike McManus, who writes a weekly column that is syndicated in over 30 newspapers, and who Salon's Eric Boehlert revealed was paid about $4,000 by HHS to train marriage mentors in 2003 and 2004. But that's only the tip of the iceberg. It seems that McManus's nonprofit group, Marriage Savers, also received $49,000 from a group that received an HHS grant to counsel unwed couples who are having children. As USA Today reported, "Since the consulting deals began in January 2003, McManus has touted Bush's marriage initiative in several of his columns. At least three of them quoted [Wade] Horn, a former member of the Marriage Savers board of directors. Horn's office manages the grant and contract under which McManus' group is paid."

If the old saw, "three is a trend" is true, the media has largely failed to recognize the payola scandal as such, and has yet to produce any reporting of substance tying these three cases together. A salient fact lost in the shuffle is that all the money going to buy favorable coverage comes from the public till, and it is the American taxpayer who is footing the bill for these schemes. A U.S. House of Representatives report filed this January found that in 2004, the Bush administration spent over $88 million on contracts with public relations agencies, as opposed to the $39 million spent in 2000 – the last year of the Clinton administration. The most famous of these PR contracts occurred last year and revolved around "reporter" Karen Ryan, who appeared in several video news releases – made to look like actual news reports – put out by the government to promote its Medicare bill. It turns out Ryan is actually a PR professional paid by the government to play the part of a reporter. (In some cases, however, the tab was picked up elsewhere. Jeff Gannon, reporter for the conservative Talon News – with its own ties to the conservative media establishment and fund raising apparatus – was outed by Media Matters as little more than a lifeline for administration figures when press conferences got testy. On Wednesday, Gannon quit Talon over the flap, which included evidence that he simply cut and pasted large sections of administration talking points in his alleged news stories.)

Blame is a two-way street, however, and if the press continues to fail to call the Republican media machine what it is – a well-funded, craftily coordinated up and down effort – then it will continue to be "shocked" each time the right tries to subvert (or buy) what has been considered our ostensibly free press. Beyond the prevalence of right-wing punditry on the nation's airwaves and the glut of partisans posing as journalists, there is also the issue of state-sponsored media, and the recent case of the RNC trying to intimidate television stations into not airing content that tells the truth about the president's proposed policies.

In the first case, reported over the weekend that the Defense Department currently runs two websites masquerading as objective news sources – one aimed at the Balkan region in Europe, and the other targeting the Maghreb area of North Africa. They write, "The sites are run by U.S. military troops trained in 'information warfare,' a specialty that can include battlefield deception….At first glance, the Web pages appear to be independent news sites. To find out who is actually behind the content, a visitor would have to click on a small link – at the bottom of the page – to a disclaimer, which says, in part, that the site is 'sponsored by' the U.S. Department of Defense."

This all looks to be an attempt by the Bush administration to pay its way around what it has repeatedly, however inaccurately, called the "liberal media filter." In fact, on Jan. 26, the RNC's Ken Mehlman sent out a fundraising memo to the party faithful saying, "we need your help to get the president's message past the liberal media filter and directly to the American people." One way to do this is, of course, is to stifle the voices of dissent. Last week, the RNC sent threatening letters to local television stations in Indiana demanding that they not air anti-Social Security privatization ads sponsored by As reported in the South Bend Tribune, the letter – signed by RNC Deputy Counsel Michael Bayes – stated that "This letter places you on notice that the information contained in the above-cited advertisement is false and misleading. Your station should act responsibly and refrain from airing this advertisement." Kevin Sargent, vice president and general manager for WSJV-TV, told the Tribune, "When a letter says 'this letter places you on notice,' that's kind of threatening." So far, no station has pulled the ad, which, as Josh Marshall points out, is factually accurate, while the complaints the RNC are lodging are actually the ones that don't seem to be based in reality.

In a very real sense, these cases serve to paint a portrait of a conservative establishment that decries the unfair shake it gets in the press while at the same time buying favor to ensure good coverage, and bilking the taxpayer to do so. The question is, how long will the mainstream media continue to ignore the evidence?

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Paul McLeary is a New York writer.

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Eric Alterman

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