Tuesday, May 27, 2008

House Votes to Ban Pentagon Propaganda: Networks Still Silent

House Votes to Ban Pentagon Propaganda: Networks Still Silent

By Josh Silver

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You probably didn't hear about the House voting to ban Pentagon propaganda last Thursday -- since the television networks have once again conveniently failed to cover the story.

But in a surprise move, a 2009 defense policy bill passed with an amendment, sponsored by Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), that outlaws the Defense Department from engaging in "a concerted effort to propagandize" the American people. The measure would also force an investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) into efforts to plant positive news stories about the war in U.S. media.

An April 20 front-page New York Times article first reported how the Pentagon cultivated and coached more than 75 former military officers who became regulars on Fox News, CNN, the broadcast networks, and even NPR. One week later, the Pentagon announced that it would suspend the "briefing" program pending an internal review, which is continuing. On May 13, watchdog Media Matters documented that analysts in the Pentagon's program appeared or were quoted in major outlets more than 4,500 times.

If the Senate also passes the propaganda ban, it will send a strong message to the Pentagon and other government agencies that the Congress will not allow the continued manipulation of public opinion.

But let's not forget that this is just the most recent major government propaganda revelation in recent years. In March 2005, the New York Times revealed that several federal agencies were producing fake "video news releases" that local television stations aired as if they were bona fide news reports.

Two months before that, several "payola pundits" were discovered to be receiving lucrative government PR contracts to opine in favor of Bush administration policies -- without disclosing their financial arrangement. Armstrong Williams was the poster-child, with his $240,000 contract from the Department of Education to promote the president's "No Child Left Behind Act."

It is crucial to understand that with or without the Pentagon's program, there will always be well-credentialed analysts pushing to get on the air who are eager to toe the administration's line for fame, ideology or money. And the right is historically much better at training them and getting them in front of cameras.

But at the end of the day, it is the television newsroom producers and "bookers" - and the executives who hire them -- who decide who gets on TV and who doesn't. And the vast majority of them consistently turn to government officials, major politicians and party insiders. They seldom turn to dissenting voices, critical public interest advocates and fierce critics of government policy.

On May 5, MSNBC's Chris Matthews revealed that "all my bosses [were] … basically pro-war during the war. … and I was up against that." Again, a major revelation ignored by most of the press that explains the culture that subsumed every major network newsroom.

On Friday, the GAO said it had already begun looking into the program and would provide a legal opinion. On the same day, the inspector general's office at the Defense Department also announced that it would investigate the Pentagon program.

The House spending bill will be taken up by the Senate after next week's recess, and legislators will have to insert a similar amendment. The White House has threatened to veto the entire bill, citing concerns with several provisions.

Congress should hold high-profile hearings to get to the bottom of the Pentagon program and force the issue into the news. If the networks won't cover it, at least C-SPAN will.

Two things are certain. First, consolidated, corporate media is failing to provide critical journalism, and is aiding and abetting government propaganda. Second, this is not the last time this media blight will rear its ugly head, and as long as it does, the American public will continue to be led by the nose to support disastrous wars, policies and politicians.

Josh Silver is the Executive Director of Free Press, a national, nonpartisan organization that he co-founded with Robert McChesney and John Nichols in 2002 to engage citizens in media policy debates and create a more democratic and diverse media system.

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