Buying of News by Bush’s Aides Is Ruled Illegal


Richard Moore


October 1, 2005 

Buying of News by Bush's Aides Is Ruled Illegal 

WASHINGTON, Sept. 30 - Federal auditors said on Friday that
the Bush administration violated the law by buying  favorable
news coverage of President Bush's education policies, by
making payments to the conservative commentator Armstrong
Williams and by hiring a public relations company to analyze
media perceptions of the Republican Party.

In a blistering report, the investigators, from the Government
Accountability Office, said the administration had
disseminated "covert propaganda" in the United States , in
violation of a statutory ban.

The contract with Mr. Williams and the general contours of the
public relations campaign had been known for months. The
report Friday provided the first definitive ruling on the
legality of the activities.

Lawyers from the accountability office, an independent
nonpartisan arm of Congress, found that the administration
systematically analyzed news articles to see if they carried
the message, "The Bush administration/the G.O.P. is committed
to education."

The auditors declared: "We see no use for such information
except for partisan political purposes. Engaging in a purely
political activity such as this is not a proper use of
appropriated funds."

The report also sharply criticized  the Education Department
for telling Ketchum Inc., a public relations company, to pay
Mr. Williams for newspaper columns and television appearances
praising Mr. Bush's education initiative, the No Child Left
Behind Act.

When that arrangement became public, it set off widespread
criticism. At a news conference in January, Mr. Bush said: "We
will not be paying commentators to advance our agenda. Our
agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet."

But the Education Department has since defended its payments
to Mr. Williams, saying his commentaries were "no more than
the legitimate dissemination of information to the public."

The G.A.O. said the Education Department had no money or
authority to "procure favorable commentary in violation of the
publicity or propaganda prohibition" in federal law.

The ruling comes with no penalty, but under federal law the
department is supposed to report the violations to the White
House and Congress.

In the course of its work, the accountability office
discovered a previously undisclosed instance in which the
Education Department had commissioned a newspaper article. The
article, on the "declining science literacy of students," was
distributed by the North American Precis  Syndicate and
appeared in numerous small newspapers around the country.
Readers were not informed of the government's role in the
writing of the article, which praised the department's role in
promoting science education.

The auditors denounced a prepackaged television story
disseminated by the Education Department. The segment, a
"video news release" narrated by a woman named Karen Ryan,
said that President Bush's program for providing remedial
instruction and tutoring to children "gets an A-plus."

Ms. Ryan also narrated two videos praising the new Medicare
drug benefit last year. In those segments, as in the education
video, the narrator ended by saying, "In Washington, I'm Karen
Ryan reporting."

The television news segments on education and on Medicare did
not state that they had been prepared and distributed by the
government. The G.A.O. did not say how many stations carried
the reports.

The public relations efforts came to light weeks before
Margaret Spellings became education secretary in January.
Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the secretary, said on Friday
that Ms. Spellings regarded the efforts as "stupid, wrong and
ill-advised." She said Ms. Spellings had taken steps "to
ensure these types of missteps don't happen again."

The investigation by the accountability office was requested
by Senators Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Edward M.
Kennedy of Massachusetts , both Democrats. Mr. Lautenberg
expressed concern about a section of the report in which
investigators said they could not find records to confirm that
Mr. Williams had performed all the activities for which he
billed the government.

The Education Department said it had paid Ketchum $186,000 for
services performed by Mr. Williams's company. But it could not
provide transcripts of speeches, articles or records of other
services invoiced by Mr. Williams, the report  said.

In March, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel
said that federal agencies did not have to acknowledge their
role in producing television news segments if they were
factual. The inspector general of the Education Department
recently reiterated that position.

But the accountability office said on Friday: "The failure of
an agency to identify itself as the source of a prepackaged
news story misleads the viewing public by encouraging the
audience to believe that the broadcasting news organization
developed the information. The prepackaged news stories are
purposefully designed to be indistinguishable from news
segments broadcast to the public. When the television viewing
public does not know that the stories they watched on
television news programs about the government were in fact
prepared by the government, the stories are, in this sense, no
longer purely factual. The essential fact of attribution is

The office said Mr. Williams's work for the government
resulted from a written proposal that he submitted to the
Education Department in March 2003. The department directed
Ketchum to use Mr. Williams as a regular commentator on Mr.
Bush's education policies. Ketchum had a federal contract to
help publicize those policies, signed by Mr. Bush in 2002.

The Education Department flouted the law by telling Ketchum to
use Mr. Williams to "convey a 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 G.A.O. said.

The Education Department spent $38,421 for production and
distribution of the video news release and $96,850 for the
evaluation of newspaper articles and radio and television
programs. Ketchum assigned a score to each article, indicating
how often and favorably it mentioned features of the new
education law.

Congress tried to clarify the ban on "covert propaganda" in a
bill signed by Mr. Bush in May. The law says that no federal
money may be used to produce or distribute a news story unless
the government's role is openly acknowledged.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company 

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