DoE probe finds lapses, but no intent to mislead public

WASHINGTON: Though no recent PR work outsourced by the Department of Education (DoE) rose to the level of "covert propaganda," certain media placements blurred the line by lacking appropriate disclaimers, found a report issued by the DoE's inspector general last week.

WASHINGTON: Though no recent PR work outsourced by the Department of Education (DoE) rose to the level of "covert propaganda," certain media placements blurred the line by lacking appropriate disclaimers, found a report issued by the DoE's inspector general last week.

The report was the culmination of an inquiry requested by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) in the wake of the Armstrong Williams controversy this past January, in which the DoE paid the commentator $240,000 through a contract with Ketchum to promote the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Issued September 1, the report lists several grants to advocacy groups that resulted in newspaper Op-Eds promoting Bush administration education policies that didn't include proper disclaimer language.

Still, the inspector general determined that because the DoE did not intend to mislead the public, the lapses did not constitute covert propaganda. "We did not find evidence to conclude that the department awarded these grants with an intent to influence public opinion through the undisclosed use of third-party grantees," the inspector general wrote in the report.

But Miller's office disagreed. "The department is trying to define itself out of trouble by setting the bar very high for what constitutes covert propaganda," Miller said in a statement. "But on multiple occasions, education groups used taxpayer money - unbeknownst to taxpayers - to promote ... federal policies."

The report named The Dallas Morning News, The Sacramento (CA) Bee, and The Mobile (AL) Register, among others, as titles that ran department-funded Op-Eds that failed to disclose government sponsorship.

Groups receiving grants included the National Council on Teacher Quality and the Hispanic Council for Reform, among others.

Also investigated were contracts with Ketchum, Ogilvy PR, and Hager Sharp. None were found to have violated any legal or ethical standards. Ogilvy and Ketchum declined comment.

Although she did not comment on the report, Hager Sharp VP Debra Silimeo noted that she has spoken with education reporters about her firm's work with the department's National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Hager Sharp was contracted to develop a video encouraging students to take the NAEP test seriously. "I talked to a lot of people very openly about what we did and didn't do, i.e. did we ever do anything like Armstrong Williams? Answer: no," she said.

The report concluded that the DoE should try to recover grant money paid to the entities cited. The department has 30 days to act on the recommendation.

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