WASHINGTON: Further evidence that the Bush Administration has paid journalists for help promoting its policies yielded sharp criticism from the President last week, as well as the introduction of a bill in Congress that would drastically enhance government oversight of all federal PR contracts.
The Federal Propaganda Prohibition Act of 2005 was introduced in the House on Wednesday by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). In addition to tightening the reins on government PR work, it seeks to codify an existing prohibition on anonymous government publicity - what is increasingly becoming known as "covert propaganda."
DeLauro said this was the right time to introduce the legislation, not only because of recent events, but also because of the current push for Social Security reform.
"We need to understand what is good, solid education ... and what crosses that line into propaganda," she told PRWeek.
On Tuesday, the President criticized Department of Education officials for paying $241,000 through Ketchum to columnist Armstrong Williams to promote the No Child Left Behind Act. He called the deal an improper use of government funds and ordered his Cabinet secretaries not to pay commentators to promote his agenda. "Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet," he said in a press conference.
Sparking the reinvigorated debate were revelations that columnist and "marriage expert" Maggie Gallagher had been paid $21,500 by the Department of Health and Human Services to ghostwrite an op-ed and produce other materials supporting Bush's "Healthy Marriage" initiatives.
Richard Mintz, chairman of the global public affairs practice at Burson-Marsteller, which holds a number of major federal PR contracts, said he didn't think the legislation was necessary. "We need government education programs," he said. "They should be transparent, they should be visible, and they shouldn't be politicized. I believe the existing rules are sufficient to allow that to happen."
But Scott Widmeyer, CEO of Widmeyer Communications, another firm that does government outreach, praised the bill. "I think Congresswoman DeLauro should be applauded for taking a look at this," he said. "A couple of these things have been out of control."
A report issued by the House Committee on Government Reform on Wednesday shows that spending on PR contracts during the Bush Administration increased 128%, from $39 million in 2000 to more than $88 million in 2004.
The Government Accountability Office has twice cited the administration for violating federal antipropaganda laws in the past year. Both centered on VNRs that didn't identify themselves as government productions. Ketchum help produced the first one for Medicare; the other was produced by Fleishman-Hillard for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.