The Bush administration’s apparent manipulation of the media in favor of the GOP sorely undermines core democratic principles.
The White House staff has been under heavy criticism for its orchestration of press conferences. This concern stems from last week’s discovery that a man named James Guckert was able to attend White House press briefings — even being called upon by first name by the president himself — when he had no journalism credentials, used “Jeff Gannon” as a pseudonym and worked for the GOPUSA.com-backed Talon News Web site.
He asked softball, partisan questions such as, “How are you going to work with people (Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.) who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?” and may have been privy to the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Investigation into the case has so far resulted in the jailing of two real reporters from The New York Times and Time magazine who refuse to reveal their sources — neither Guckert, nor conservative commentator Robert Novak, who first revealed the classified information, have been jailed.
Guckert, often a critic of gay marriage, resigned last week from Talon News Service, amid the revelation that he operated several Web sites promoting his services as a homosexual “escort.”
In addition to the executive branch allowing Guckert into White House briefings and news conferences, the Education Department and the Department of Health paid syndicated columnists Maggie Gallagher and Armstrong Williams to promote presidential initiatives in their columns.
In 2004, the Department of Health and Human Services released video, now judged by the Government Accountability Office to be “covert propaganda,” to television news stations in order to sell Bush’s controversial Medicaid bill. The video, which looked exactly like a news story complete with a closing line of “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting,” gave no indication that it was produced by a public relations firm under the employ of the government. Ryan and the Administration were rebuked by both real journalists and fake ones — earning a spot on The Daily Show. That didn’t stop “Karen Ryan” from being employed again later that year by the Department of Education to use the same technique to promote the No Child Left Behind Act.
According to Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, some of the tactics to “get the president’s message past the liberal media filter and directly to the American people,” include public “town hall meetings.” The “town hall” atmosphere is set up so the president can answer pre-selected questions from hand-picked individuals in a screened audience environment. Attendees to such “casual environment” press conferences must produce a ticket, which are controlled by local officials and organizations. The names of individuals White House staff deem could be “disruptive to the event” are put on a “do not admit” list. The appearance is set up to fool television viewers that the event is staffed with balanced reporters.
Supporters of media regulation believe it will weed out the “hecklers.” Of course, the GOP still welcomes “friendlies” such as Guckert, whose only journalism training is two-days attendance at a conservative school of journalism program called “The Leadership Institute.”
These bully tactics toward the press only hurt the Bush image by hinting that the administration has something to hide. It fuels an ongoing skepticism concerning the administration’s secrecy.
Journalism has been known as the “Fourth Estate” because it serves as part of the nation’s system of checks and balances. It is the right of the people to know what their government is doing. If the media must fight a closed-door policy to gain information, while phony reporters write fake news stories, democracy is imperiled.
The Daily Texan,University of Texas-Austin