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The Libertarian

Vin Suprynowicz

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Before cheap cartoons took over the time slot, kids growing up in the 1950s and ’60s would rise early on a Saturday morning and plant themselves in front of the TV to catch “Roy Rogers” and “The Lone Ranger.”

Some became over-eager, however, and could find they’d risen so early there was nothing beaming down on their bowl of Cheerios from the blue cathode ray tube but the Indian chief in the test pattern (TV stations didn’t broadcast 24 hours, back then), followed by “Industry on Parade” and “The Big Picture.”

These were 15- or 30-minute propaganda reels of often endearing goofiness, distributed free to local network affiliates by some Steel Ball Bearing Council or -- in the case of “The Big Picture” -- by the United States Army.

Some general at a desk would get things rolling with a few inspiring words, followed by a half hour of filmed tank maneuvers or whatever, celebrating America’s “guardians of freedom.” Pretty harmless stuff, especially since it didn’t pretend to be anything but what it was.

But even way back then, Congress was careful, when it authorized expenditures for propaganda broadcasts overseas (“Radio Free Europe” and the like), to specify no federal agency was authorized to propagandize Americans with “the government line,” here at home. After all, only characters like Joseph Goebbels did that kind of thing. America had an independent press.

Guess what? It was revealed this year that the federal Department of Education -- under whose tenure the cost of government schooling in this country has skyrocketed while outcomes have flatlined -- paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote Mr. Bush’s pet “No Child Left Behind” law.

Additionally, within the past year, the General Accountability Office rapped the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of National Drug Control Policy for distributing stories about the Medicare drug benefit and the administration’s anti-drug campaign (respectively), pre-packaged to look like independent new stories, in the hope and expectation local TV stations would run them without properly acknowledging them as government propaganda.

(Our drug czars have actually done something trickier than that, arranging for networks to benefit financially if they’d merely “work messages” which favor the current selective War Against Some Plant Extracts into the story lines of their entertainment programs.)

Comptroller General David Walker of the GAO ruled on Feb. 17 it is illegal -- since it violates provisions in annual appropriations laws that ban covert propaganda -- for federal agencies to feed TV stations prepackaged news stories designed to resemble independently reported broadcast news stories so that TV stations can run them without editing (and presumably without disclosing the government’s role in producing them.)

But The New York Times reported March 13 that the Bush administration on March 11 sent memos to federal agency heads and general counsels, “rejecting” that ruling.

Joshua Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and Steven Bradbury, principal deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department, wrote in the memos that the department’s Office of Legal Counsel, not the GAO (the investigative arm of Congress) provides binding legal interpretations for federal agencies to follow.

Say again? It’s the executive branch that now decides what the law is, and not the Congress?

The legal counsel’s office “does not agree with GAO that the covert propaganda prohibition applies simply because an agency’s role in producing and disseminating information is undisclosed or ‘covert’ ...” Mr. Bradbury wrote. “Our view is that the prohibition does not apply where there is no advocacy of a particular viewpoint, and therefore it does not apply to the legitimate provision of information concerning the programs administered by an agency.”

“No particular viewpoint”? This is palpable nonsense. Are we to believe Armstrong Williams would have received his government payola if he’d told his audience that “No Child Left Behind” simply wastes everyone’s time “teaching to the test” -- that the best solution would be to shut down the DOE and return educational control to our local communities? That Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey and his successors would have been happy to compensate the producers of episodes of “Law & Order” that presented the viewpoint that marijuana is relatively harmless; that armed drug busts kill more people than they “save”?

Have we just forgotten to take our idiot pills this week?

G-men are famous for figuring “Everyone will surely agree. ...” They can’t imagine anyone being opposed to their wise and benevolent programs, so they don’t see propaganda in favor of their latest malarkey as “biased.” I once tried without success to convince Clinton economic advisor Laura Tyson that higher taxes left us with less money to spend. She insisted higher taxes gave us more money to spend. Turns out these characters don’t even mean the same thing as normal people when they say the word “us.”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said through a spokesman March 14 he will try to attach language to an appropriations bill to clarify that taxpayer money cannot be spent on such productions.

“Whether in the form of a payment to an actual journalist, or through the creation of a fake one, it is wrong to deceive the public with the creation of phony news stories,” wrote Sen. Lautenberg and fellow Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Fort Lauderdale.

The Democrats are on the right track, as will happen occasionally. But they need to go much further.

Federal agencies (of which there should be far fewer) should have “public relations” and “media” departments only for the purpose of answering questions and helping citizens understand the arcane and excessive rules and regulations they enforce. Promoting policies that fill their own feeding troughs (especially by stealth) should be rigorously barred, with violations punishable by individual imprisonment.

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