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According to a January 7 article that appeared in USA Today The Bush administration paid $240,000 to prominent African-American pundit Armstrong Williams, to promote it’s No Child Left Behind program. Jeff, this is not the first time that the government has bought and paid for news stories.
Jeff – No, it is not the first time. Last year, there was the case involving the Health Department creating a video news release and then had a PR firm distribute it nationally as an independent news source. Historically the US government has used its intelligence agencies for distributing fabricated news.
Linda – Can you give us an example?
Jeff – Author Nancy Snow provides lots of details and examples in her book Propaganda Inc. Since World War II, the CIA and the US Information Agency were creating news stories and circulating them around the world under fake journalistic names. Snow sites examples with stories that appeared in the New York Times during the Vietnam war, the CIA coup in Chile and more recently the US government’s attempt to destabilize the country of Venezuela.
Linda – What exactly happened with the No Child Left Behind case?
Jeff – Well, USA Today cited documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The contract required Armstrong Williams "to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts," and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige. The Ketchum PR firm, on behalf of the Education Department, also "arranged with Williams to use contacts with America's Black Forum, a group of black broadcast journalists, 'to encourage the producers to periodically address' NCLB." The arrangement was part of a $1 million contract with Ketchum, which also produced video news releases touting NCLB. Williams, who also runs the Graham Williams Group PR firm, said he agreed to the contract because NCLB is "something I believe in."
Linda – More on this story can be found at PR Watch
Tom – One further point on the topic of Armstrong Williams. This is not the first time that he has let himself be a paid mouthpiece for hidden interests. According to internal tobacco industry documents reveal that in 1996 Williams allowed his nationally syndicated radio program, The Right Side, to be guest hosted by Malcolm Wallop, the chairman of Frontiers of Freedom (FoF), a front group partly funded by tobacco companies. Wallop proceeded to spend one third of the three-hour program criticizing a Food and Drug Administration rule aimed at restricting tobacco industry marketing aimed at youth, calling the rule an "abridgement of First Amendment rights." Prior to being a radio personality, Armstrong Williams headed up several PR firms and in that position he had a history working with and accepting money from large tobacco companies , particularly Philip Morris. More on Armstrong Williams and big tobacco can be found at the aforementioned PR watch.org.
Linda – You mention this specific example of a tobacco company buying positive PR without the public knowledge. How common is this practice on the part of tobacco companies?
Tom – Tobacco companies are constantly trying to find ways to promote their products despite government regulations limiting how they can advertise. One way that big tobacco uses media to push cigarettes is through a close relationship with Hollywood. GRIID looked at sample of Hollywood movies over a given time period and we found that characters in the films smoked at a much higher percentage than people in the real world, a conclusion shared by other studies that have looked at this. Also, in these films smoking is sometimes glamorized or at least normalized, never were the negative effects of tobacco use included in the movie. Particularly disturbing was that we found the highest percentage of tobacco usage in the films we looked at occurred in the films directed at the youth market. Now this is not an accident. This is intentional product placement, often the result of business agreements between the cigarette manufacturer and the movie studio.
Linda – For more on Tobacco and movies check out the online report “Lighting up the Movies” at www.griid.org.
Linda – On Thursday, January 13 the GR Press ran a story in its business section entitled “Defense contracts aid area firms.” Jeff, how did this article depict companies that have military contracts?
Jeff – The article tells us that Borisch makes circuit boards for tanks and communications systems for military planes, but there is never any discussion of how these weapons systems are being used, nor where they are being used. If these weapons systems are being used in Afghanistan or Iraq the public has a right to know that?
Linda – Why?
Jeff – Well, these companies get taxpayer money to pay for their production of weapons systems for the military. People should know how their tax dollars are being used. Second, the article does mention that more jobs have been created, but there is no context for that in relation to job increase or decline as a whole locally. It’s also mentioned that the city of Kentwood has provided 8 and 12 year tax abatements to Borisch, and the City of Grand Rapids has provided funding to the other company mentioned in this article, Sordal. Look at it like this, taxpayers are giving these companies a free ride with the tax abatements and other financial support, plus taxpayers are paying the salaries of the employees and management, since these are contracts through the Defense Department, but the Press coverage does not present these contracts in this light.
Linda – For more information on local military contractors go to the Media Mouse website.
Linda – British journalist Robert Fisk has recently wrote an article entitled “Hotel Journalism” about the state of reporting in Iraq right now.
Tom – Yes he did and in it he makes some very important points that people should keep in mind when reading or watching any news reports that come out of Iraq. In his article Fisk uses the phrase “Hotel Journalism” to describe what most of the journalists are doing in Iraq now, which is, reporting from their hotel rooms without actually going out into the streets of Iraq’s towns and cities. This is due not to lazy journalism but to the danger posed by the increasingly chaotic and violent situation in Iraq right now. According to Fisk, many reporters travel only with a contingent of armed guards or they refuse to leave their guarded compound, relying on reports form Iraqi freelancers that they hire. The only other option for reporters is to be embedded in a U.S. army unit, a position from which it is very difficult for a reporter to interact with the Iraqi man on the street.
Linda – So how do these limitations on journalists freedom of movement affect their stories and is this acknowledged in press reports from Iraq?
Tom – One thing we noticed here at GRIID when we studied local news coverage of the Iraq war was an over reliance on official sources, that is information provided by the government and the military. With the kind of restrictions on their ability to freely move about, this tendency by journalists to use information from official sources is further magnified. According to Fisk, this also encourages to the military to release false or misleading information when it suits their purposes to the media in Iraq. This is because they know that many journalists are not going to take the risk of traveling within the country in order to verify or disprove a story. Now, as far as our own media monitoring, we have yet to see a local TV or newspaper article that acknowledged these serious limitations on the quality and reliability of news reports coming out of Iraq.
Linda – For the article by Robert Fisk, go to the online journal www.counterpunch.org. The GRIID report on Local media coverage of Iraq can be downloaded here.