How much is good press worth? To the Bush administration, about $1.6 billion.
That’s how much seven federal departments spent from 2003 through the second quarter of 2005 on 343 contracts with public relations firms, advertising agencies, media organizations and individuals, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.
The 154-page report provides the most comprehensive look to date at the scope of federal spending in an area that generated substantial controversy last year. Congressional Democrats asked the GAO to look into federal public relations contracts last spring at the height of the furor over government-sponsored prepackaged news and journalism-for-sale.
Armstrong Williams, the conservative commentator, had been unmasked as a paid administration promoter who received $186,000 from the Education Department to speak favorably about President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law in broadcast appearances.
Around the same time, a spat erupted between the GAO and the White House over whether the government’s practice of feeding TV stations prepackaged, ready-to-air news stories that touted administration policies (but did not disclose the government as the source) amounted to “covert propaganda.” The GAO said that it did. The administration disagreed, saying spreading information about federal programs is part of the agencies’ mission, and that the burden of disclosure falls on the TV stations.
Congress sided with the GAO. Lawmakers inserted a provision into an annual spending bill requiring federal agencies to include “a clear notification” within the text or audio of a prepackaged news story that it was prepared or paid for by the government.
The new report reveals that federal public relations spending goes far beyond “video news releases.” The contracts covered the waterfront, from a $6.3 million agreement to help the Department of Homeland Security educate Americans about how to respond to terrorist attacks; to a $647,350 contract to assist the Transportation Security Administration in producing video news releases and media tours on the subject of airport security procedures; to a $6,600 contract to train managers at the Bureau of Reclamation in dealing with the media.
“Careful oversight of this spending is essential given the track record of the Bush administration, which has used taxpayer dollars to fund covert propaganda within the United States,” Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), ranking Democrat of the House Government Reform Committee, said in a statement yesterday.