It is the nature of politicians and bureaucrats to try to paint themselves in the best light or to get free publicity where they can.
It is why the names of governors appear on signs welcoming people to their states, why various state officials put their names and pictures on helpful brochures or government Websites. Or why congressmen send out self-congratulatory newsletters to their constituents and have a television studio at the Capitol where they can record clips for hometown stations.
Every once in a while, someone clearly goes too far. A cabinet member pays a ghost writer thousands of dollars to write opinion pieces for them that are sent out to newspapers, is one example of abuse.
But last year, the Bush administration's Department of Education made a jump into the realm of political propaganda that is so egregious that heads should roll and the president himself should make it clear that he will not tolerate such abuse.
The pay off
The department surreptitiously paid Armstrong Williams, a prominent black conservative commentator, $241,000 to push the No Child Left Behind Act on his show and in newspaper columns he wrote. The contract also required Williams to give Education Secretary Rod Paige time on his show.
The deal came to light only through the efforts of USA Today, which pried it out of the department through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Williams has reacted with contrition, acknowledging an error of judgment. The syndicate that distributed his newspaper column has dropped him. Still, he's being defended by some in his quarter. Rush Limbaugh gave him a silly endorsement, assuring his listeners that Williams was such a man of integrity that he would never shill for something he didn't believe in.
On the other hand, the Education Department defended its payments to Williams, which was as part of a million-dollar contract with the Ketchum public relations firm to promote the No Child Left Behind Act with minority groups.
The government is barred from domestic propaganda, but the administration has had trouble recognizing that. The Williams case was not the first such incident.
Congressional watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office have twice said within the past year that the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House office of drug policy probably violated federal law by issuing video press releases in the guise of news reports. To their discredit, many TV stations presented the administration propaganda as actual news. Other federal agencies have reportedly issued similar faux news videos touting their programs.
Such propaganda is dangerously un-American. Government shouldn't be using taxpayers' money to bend public opinion on issues that are working their way through the legislative process. It is clearly wrong.
It is obviously wrong, too, to pay a commentator or reporter or news outlet to present the government's argument without attributing the argument to government officials. Think about it this way: If it is illegal for a record company to use its own money to surreptitiously pay a disc jockey to push a record on the public airwaves, why would it be legal for a politician or bureaucrat to use public funds to surreptitiously push a political viewpoint?
Appropriating public funds for purposes of government propaganda ought to be a scandal that makes the payola of the 1950s look like child's play. That there are those in the administration who cannot or will not acknowledge that is frightening.