Thursday, April 14, 2005

From across the sea - how the Brits REALLY see us spinning around the Beltway

Hmmmm -- paging Toby Young!

America - Andrew Stephen reveals how Bush nobbled the press - Andrew Stephen - AmericaMonday - 18th April 2005

The new style of government here involves paying journalists and broadcasters to mention Bush policies favourably and paying PR companies to plant fake "news reports" [surprise!] By Andrew Stephen

Hillary Clinton, I hear, is so left-wing that she will be unable to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2008. The UN is in chaos and Kofi Annan will have to go because it has been proved beyond doubt that he is corrupt. Senator Ted Kennedy is a beyond-the-pale lefty who should not be taken seriously in American politics.Virtually every day, I find decent people telling me this sort of thing. Such pearls have become accepted wisdom in all social classes and across the political spectrum. In fact, Hillary Clinton's record fits quite comfortably with the Democratic mainstream. The UN oil-for-food scandal is nothing compared with that of the disappearing $4bn during the first weeks of the Iraq occupation, and there is no evidence whatever that Annan is anything but a man of deep principle. Kennedy would fit easily into the left of the Tory party.

So why do most Americans believe these statements to be true? The answer, I think, is that the Bush administration has consciously decided to wrest control of large slices of the American media - not just in its editorialising, but in its reporting as well. It comes naturally to the present White House to lie, bully and intimidate, and the result is that the media are now exactly where the administration wants them to be: cowed, more right-wing, and on the defensive.The process started in the administration's first term.

"Reporters" without proper press credentials were planted in White House press conferences; they duly asked what Americans call softball questions. Fake TV news reports, written and produced by government departments or even PR companies paid to work on their behalf, were frequently broadcast by stations that passed them off as their own legitimate news.Take Jeff Gannon, a man with a shaven head who was always asking contrived questions at White House press conferences. The administration gave him press credentials almost as soon as it took power in 2001, at a time when it was turning away many critical journalists, such as the Pulitzer-winning New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Not long ago, Gannon asked President Bush: "How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?" He was also given a secret government memo that outed a woman as a CIA agent - information the administration wanted to leak.Gannon worked for a political website called Talon News, the White House said. In fact, Talon News was a front organisation; the man funding Talon was Robert Eberle, a 37-year-old Texas Republican who also supports a right-wing website called [,%20the%20traditional%20nickname%20for%20the%20republican%20party/]). Gannon's real name is James D Guckert. Guckert was the name on the driving licence he presented to the US Secret Service every day when he arrived at the White House - a clear indication that the machine was in cahoots with the deception. He was also behind gay "escort" websites such as [,%20%20,%20which%20advertised%20him%20as%20somebody%20who%20is][sic]".

Members of the Bush administration certainly would not want publicly to be associated with sleaze and fabrication, but such things do not matter if they are kept under wraps; being found out is what counts. Guckert subsequently "resigned" as White House correspondent for Talon News because of the pressure on him and "my family" - apparently a reference to his elderly mother. Talon News has now disappeared altogether, and this particular wheeze by the Republicans is over. But others proliferate. I would have thought that the Fox News network - by far the most-watched news channel in the country - would not need anyone to serve up propaganda to it for broadcasting. A report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism said last month that 73 per cent of Fox news items about Iraq contained the opinions of reporters and anchors, apparently provided voluntarily. But its stations in Louisville and Memphis have still broadcast "news reports" that have been faked by government departments or PR agencies to promote the Bush agenda - without telling viewers of their origin. Typical are highly contentious "reports" about the proposed changes in social security, which end with the convincing sign-off "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting".The reporter in a similar piece, hailing what was described as "another success" in "the drive to strengthen aviation security", was a PR operative working under a false name. Reports highlighting the training of interrogators such as those at Abu Ghraib Prison were produced by the Pentagon and transmitted by at least 34 television stations. The administration paid $254m to PR companies in its first term, $97m of which went to a public relations firm called Ketchum. This company was involved in yet another wheeze: secretly paying journalists to drop favourable mentions of the administration into their writings and broadcasting. Armstrong Williams, a man the Washington Post described as "one of the most prominent black conservatives in the media", was paid $241,000 to comment on the administration's schools policies during his broadcasts and in his syndicated columns.The way the administration reacted when news of this came out was, again, typical: Rod Paige, in charge of education when his department contracted Williams to spew out support masquerading as honest comment, pronounced himself shocked and ordered an inquiry into "perceptions and allegations of ethical lapses". Not real ethical lapses, you notice, just perceptions. "This happens all the time," Williams says of his paymasters' tactics. "There are others."Newspapers and TV stations have started to buckle under pressure. Right-wing administration policies are presented as mainstream; the US media like to see themselves as occupying the noble middle ground, and have been coerced to see the middle as further to the right. In the election campaign last year, for example, George Bush's claims were far more outrageous than John Kerry's - but the media convinced themselves that, by seeing each side as equally guilty, their coverage would be (to use Fox's cynical phrase) fair and balanced. The tactics of the Bush administration have thus become like those of Richard Nixon: it uses any opportunity to paint opponents as dirty and unprincipled, while claiming the high moral ground for itself.

Perhaps my favourite indicator of how the president and his team view the media came in September 2000 when Bush and Dick Cheney were speaking at an election rally in Naperville, Illinois. Microphones picked up Bush saying: "There's Adam Clymer, major-league asshole from the New York Times." To which Cheney responded: "Oh yeah, he is, big time."Which probably explains why the administration then refused a press pass to Maureen Dowd (but gave one to the wretched Guckert), and why it banned New York Times reporters from the vice-presidential plane. Give no quarter, show no quarter, unless it becomes the only political way out; pay and manipulate for good coverage even though it may be downright dishonest: that is the new way of government here.

This article first appeared in the New Statesman. For the latest in current and cultural affairs subscribe to the New Statesman print edition.

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