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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Propaganda Wars

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2005; 9:52 AM

How often do you write a story and the president is asked about it hours later?

This whole question of pundit payola is heating up, and the Democrats, not surprisingly, are milking the issue for all it's worth.

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Ever since Armstrong Williams apologized for his $240K oversight and declared there were others like him (without naming names), Beltway types have wondered whether anyone else's name would surface. But the flap goes beyond multi-hat-wearing commentators who take government money without telling their readers and viewers. It also involves the administration spending taxpayer dollars on outside PR firms (Ketchum got $97 million, Matthews Media Group $52 million and Fleishmann Hillard $41 million during the past four years) and cooking up those bogus video news releases that some local stations, for some reason, are all too happy to air.

With the proliferation of TV talking heads and column writers, some folks yesterday were asking, just who is a journalist, or at least, who should be held to journalistic standards? In the case of both of the pro-Bush pundits whose conduct is now at issue, Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher, they clearly believed in the policies they were pushing before taking any government checks. All the more reason for them to make the appropriate disclosures and let readers and viewers make up their minds about whether they are unduly influenced by serving as government contractors. Both apparently now agree and have apologized.

My story on Gallagher prompted Mark Knoller of CBS News to ask Bush about such pundit contracts at a White House news conference, and the president wasted no time in getting out in front of the issue.

We'll hear from some other voices, but first, my report from this morning's Washington Post:

President Bush said yesterday that federal agencies should stop awarding contracts to outside commentators as a Democratic lawmaker assailed the administration over the latest example and an advocacy group called for an investigation.

Separately, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and nine colleagues released a report showing that the Bush administration spent more than $88 million last year on contracts with public relations firms, an increase of 128 percent over the last year of the Clinton administration.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher was touting Bush's "healthy marriage" initiative while working on the program under a $21,500 contract from the Department of Health and Human Services. The news followed an earlier controversy over conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who has apologized for not disclosing a $241,000 Education Department contract to promote the president's No Child Left Behind law.

Asked about the issue at a news conference, Bush said: "Mr. Armstrong Williams admitted he made a mistake. And we didn't know about this in the White House. And there needs to be a nice, independent relationship between the White House and the press, the administration and the press." Asked whether the Education Department had also made a mistake, Bush said yes.

The president added: "All our Cabinet secretaries must realize that we will not be paying, you know, commentators to advance our agenda. Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet."

Gallagher, a marriage expert who heads a Washington think tank, apologized to her readers Tuesday for failing to reveal her contract to assist HHS while writing about the marriage initiative in articles and columns, one of which referred to Bush's "genius." She also received $20,000 in Justice Department funding to write a report on marriage for a private group.

In a statement yesterday, Gallagher said: "It was a mistake on my part not to have disclosed any government contract. It will not happen again." But she said The Post article was "completely false" in saying that her HHS contract was "to help promote the president's proposal." The article noted that under the contract, Gallagher wrote brochures for the program, helped ghost-write a magazine article for a top official and conducted a briefing for regional officials. She was also required to "assist" HHS "in ongoing work related to strengthening marriage."

Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (Conn.) and four other Democrats introduced legislation yesterday that would bar funding of "covert propaganda" or material that is partisan or intended for "self-aggrandizement" or "puffery." A statement by one co-sponsor, Rep. George Miller (Calif.) cited the Gallagher contract in saying that "what we really need right now is for the administration to come clean about its propaganda campaign. The administration should disclose all publicly funded contracts signed with journalists, commentators and public relations firms to promote administration policies." Miller has asked for a Government Accountability Office probe of such contracts.

The gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, which opposes Bush's proposal for a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage, asked the HHS inspector general to investigate the Gallagher contract. HRC questioned in a letter whether federal law or congressional rules were violated when Gallagher twice testified before the Senate on the amendment without disclosing her federal contracts. The inspector general has made no decision yet, a spokeswoman said.

Now for some reaction. Maureen Dowd in the New York Times sounds a tad jealous:

"I'm herewith resigning as a member of the liberal media elite.

"I'm joining up with the conservative media elite.

"They get paid better. . . .

"Ms. Gallagher earned her money, even praising Mr. Bush in print as a 'genius' at playing 'daddy' to the nation. 'Mommies feel your pain,' she wrote in 2002. 'Daddies give you confidence that you can ignore the pain and get on with life.' . . .

"I still have many Christmas bills to pay. So I'd like to send a message to the administration: THIS SPACE AVAILABLE. I could write about the strong dollar and the shrinking deficit. Or defend Torture Boy, I mean, the esteemed and sage Alberto Gonzales. Or remind readers of the terrific job Condi Rice did coordinating national security before 9/11 -- who could have interpreted a memo titled 'Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States' as a credible threat? -- not to mention her indefatigable energy obscuring information undercutting the vice president's dementia on Iraq."

Newsday's Paul Vitello also appears willing to rent out his services:

"Here's my price list.

"For privatization of Social Security coverage, I have a wide selection of nice words available, starting with these for $100: 'President Bush's idea to undermine the security in Social Security is one of his best ever.'

"For $200, Bush's privatization proposal becomes 'one of those great ideas to which future generations will point and say with awe, "Just because we are eating cat food today doesn't mean we won't someday be rich -- just like President Bush said we might be." '

"Because the war in Iraq involves so much suffering and death, prices for words about that sphere are somewhat higher. For $12,400, for example, I have a nice spritz of realistic-sounding analysis, ending on a high note of vague hope."

You get the idea.

National Review, as I reported yesterday, was one of the publications that ran a piece by Gallagaher, and Editor Rich Lowry told me he was unaware of the contract.

"Had we known about it, as Rich told Kurtz, we would have disclosed it, of course, so you knew where she was coming from," writes National Review Online Editor Kathryn Jean Lopez. "We wish we had known -- I wish she had told us. Is this different than Armstrong Williams? I think so. She is a marriage expert. That's why she has a syndicated column. And that's why the government hired her, to do marriage work (it's what she does), not to promote anything (Williams got money to talk up NCLB).

"Of course, countless academics and scientists do . . . grant and research work for the government everyday. That said, as she now acknowledges, that all should have set off an alarm bell for her when it came to her supporting government marriage-related policy in her column and her freelance work. As for us, I'm uncomfortable with the situation. We should have disclosed the relationship, given what she was writing about. Had we known, we would have. We have to rely on our authors to tell us these things -- we obviously cannot do background checks on authors every time we accept a piece.

"Post-Williams, authors need to go the extra mile to be upfront about any perceived conflicts of interest. And, as a matter of policy, we're now going to routinely remind them they've got to clue us in. If you feel uncomfortable/deceived, I apologize. I'm fairly certain, though, for what it is worth, that Gallagher's positions are what they are, with or without having done work for the administration. But you should have had all the facts."

Salon's Eric Boehlert checks in with other opinion-mongers of the right:

"Now, the question is: What other pundits were cashing checks?"

National Review editor at large Jonah Goldberg "notes that because of pending Freedom of Information Act requests, submitted to government agencies in the wake of the Williams revelation, 'It's going to come out anyway and [the White House] may as well get it out first and clear the air of lingering suspicions.'

" 'I hope whoever does [have a contract] will come forward promptly, as there's a cloud over conservatives and all commentators and pundits,' says Tony Blankley, editorial page editor of the right-wing Washington Times. 'My suspicion is it will be a very few people. But maybe I'm being naive.' . . .

"Goldberg doesn't buy Gallagher's defense that she didn't recall the HHS payment. 'She's doing better than I thought if she doesn't remember getting paid $21,000.' He adds, 'In the wake of the Armstrong story, she showed poor judgment by not coming clean about this.'"

Ed Morrissey, in the Captain's Quarters blog, sees a distinction between Gallagher and Armstrong:

"Gallagher should have revealed her working relationship with HHS, both to her readers and her publishers. NRO editor Rich Lowry told Kurtz that he would have preferred to know about the relationship in order to include it in her bio on the site, and that's understandable. Moreover, I think Gallagher's glib response to the question of an ethical violation -- 'I don't know, you tell me' -- shows a contempt for reality that damages her credibility more than her undisclosed consultancy for HHS.

"However, unlike Armstrong Williams, Gallagher did not sell her column space to HHS, nor did she push others to cover the proposals or solicit positive commentary as a contractual duty. Gallagher wrote some of the brochures for the program, most of which went unused, and ghost-wrote an essay for program chief Wade Horn. She also spoke to program officials about marriage, which amounts to nothing much more than a stop on a lecture tour. She exercised some poor judgment and should apologize (which she already has), but it's a much different situation than Williams."

Andrew Sullivan's post is titled "ET TU, MAGGIE?"

"It turns out Armstrong Williams isn't the only aggressive journalistic backer of Bush administration policies who was at one point paid by the Bush administration. Maggie Gallagher, perhaps the chief journalistic advocate of the constitutional ban on civil marriage for gays, also received, by her account, $21,500 in 2002 to write materials related to the administration's promotion of civil marriage. She never disclosed the income -- even though she continued to write as an independent journalist on the issue of marriage, especially the Federal Marriage Amendment. . . .

"She argues, reasonably, that her case is not a direct equivalent to Williams'. She received a tenth of the money, and wasn't paid to be a mere flack for a piece of legislation. She just worked for the government, while seeming to be writing independently of any government position."

Josh Marshall also sees the two cases as different:

"It seems fair to say that the Gallagher arrangement wasn't as egregious as the Williams one. It's not clear -- at least from Kurtz's piece -- that she was paid to flack the policy, but rather to ghostwrite a few marriage policy articles, write a few brochures and do . . . well, it's actually not totally clear what she was paid to do.

"Which suggests a point. Were they really worried that Gallagher would come out for free love without the cash incentive? Neither she nor Williams is really known for their independent streak. In Gallagher's case -- and to some degree in Williams' too -- this seems less like a matter of payola than a Bush administration make-work program for third-tier GOP pundits."

Kevin Drum is more perturbed:

"What's striking about this emerging payola scandal is the aggressive cluelessness of the participants towards basic standards of journalistic decency. Remember how Armstrong Williams claimed never to have considered that it might be wrong to take a quarter million dollars of government money to promote the administration's education policies as an 'independent' opinion journalist and not, at the very least, disclose the fact? Gallagher betrayed the same indifference when confronted by Kurtz. 'Did I violate journalistic ethics by not disclosing it? . . . I don't know. You tell me.'

"This is an attitude you're seeing a lot of today in Washington. The ascendant class of conservative pundit-operatives looks upon old strictures of behavior with a kind of incomprehension, even contempt."

In other press conference news, now it's Bush trying to explain what Bush meant on Jan. 20:

"President Bush sought Wednesday to calm the tempest stirred by his inauguration speech," the Los Angeles Times says, "insisting that his quest to end tyranny abroad would not prevent him from working toward 'practical objectives' with governments that do not live up to American ideals.

"In a White House news conference, Bush said he would push foreign leaders to reform but stopped short of declaring that such reforms would be the foremost goal of U.S. relations with other countries.

"'I don't think foreign policy is an either-or proposition,' Bush said. 'I think it is possible, when you're a nation like the United States, to accomplish both objectives.'

"Bush's news conference remarks were the latest effort by the White House to damp down concerns about the crusading tenor of foreign policy pronouncements contained in the president's Inaugural address last Thursday."

The Wall Street Journal also has the prez in damage control mode:

"President Bush clarified the import of his inaugural address, saying it didn't shift U.S. policy but set a 'bold new goal' toward which he will lead the world in his second term. At a White House news conference, Mr. Bush sought to resolve the varying interpretations that his aides, ordinary Americans and foreign capitals alike have applied to his inaugural remarks last week."

Or maybe it was pre-damage control, the NYT suggests:

"President Bush's opening statement at his news conference on Wednesday was striking for what it left out: any mention of the 31 Americans who died overnight in the crash of a Marine helicopter in Iraq, the largest number of American deaths in a single incident since the war began.

"Mr. Bush instead focused on his long-term goal of 'ending tyranny in our world,' and then cast the Iraqi election coming Sunday as part of a march of freedom around the globe. He said that if he had told the reporters in the room a few years before that the Iraqi people would be voting, 'you would look at me like some of you still look at me, with a kind of blank expression.'

"The president's words were part of an aggressive White House communications strategy this week and next to frame the risky Iraqi election -- a critical test of his assertion that the country is on the path to stability -- in the best possible light. The goal, a Bush adviser said, was not only to lower expectations but to avoid any definition of success."

Condi was confirmed, by the way, 85 to 13 by the Senate, with John Kerry, Edward Kennedy and Barbara Boxer among those voting against her.

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