In a little-noticed development last week, the Government Accountability Office, an independent government watchdog, ruled that the Bush administration's "covert propaganda" efforts are illegal:
Federal auditors said on Friday that the Bush administration violated the law by buying favorable news coverage of President Bush's education policies, by making payments to the conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and by hiring a public relations company to analyze media perceptions of the Republican Party.
In a blistering report, the investigators, from the Government Accountability Office, said the administration had disseminated "covert propaganda" in the United States, in violation of a statutory ban.
...Lawyers from the accountability office, an independent nonpartisan arm of Congress, found that the administration systematically analyzed news articles to see if they carried the message, "The Bush administration/the G.O.P. is committed to education."
The auditors declared: "We see no use for such information except for partisan political purposes. Engaging in a purely political activity such as this is not a proper use of appropriated funds."
The report also sharply criticized the Education Department for telling Ketchum Inc., a public relations company, to pay Mr. Williams for newspaper columns and television appearances praising Mr. Bush's education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act.
...The ruling comes with no penalty, but under federal law the department is supposed to report the violations to the White House and Congress.
In the course of its work, the accountability office discovered a previously undisclosed instance in which the Education Department had commissioned a newspaper article. The article, on the "declining science literacy of students," was distributed by the North American Precis Syndicate and appeared in numerous small newspapers around the country. Readers were not informed of the government's role in the writing of the article, which praised the department's role in promoting science education.
The auditors denounced a prepackaged television story disseminated by the Education Department. The segment, a "video news release" narrated by a woman named Karen Ryan, said that President Bush's program for providing remedial instruction and tutoring to children "gets an A-plus."
Ms. Ryan also narrated two videos praising the new Medicare drug benefit last year. In those segments, as in the education video, the narrator ended by saying, "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting."
The television news segments on education and on Medicare did not state that they had been prepared and distributed by the government.
This is a crucial step in avoiding the ugly dystopian future of Karen Ryan that we warned about in the conclusion to All the President's Spin. Americans should not have to wonder whether the news they are viewing is disguised government PR.
Update 10/5: Here's the GAO report.