Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Crickets at the Pentagon

It's now been 10 days since the New York Times ran its piece exposing the propaganda machine in which the Pentagon utilized retired military commanders, who stood to gain from defense contracts, to propagate its message--unattributed--in the mass media outlets. In those 10 days, not a single major news outlet has discussed it, clearly indicative of the significant role played by the outlets themselves.

Consider the implications here. In the run up to the war, and in its early stages, the press of a free nation willingly disseminated the government's propaganda message in support of the war. A free press that is supposed to speak truth to power, thereby enfranchising the public, instead chose to serve, unadulterated, the meal the Pentagon was dishing out.

Until last Sunday, it seemed that the embed program was the biggest embarrassment for free press in decades. Now that pales in comparison, yet not a single major news outlet has seen fit to even broach the subject or offer apologies for committing crimes against intellectual honesty and serving the will of the state before their viewers.

Finally asked about it today (probably by someone other than a regular member of the White House press corps), Dana Perino repeated the company line that the program was okay because "it's absolutely appropriate to provide information to people who are seeking it and are going to be providing their opinions on it." The law, however, disagrees.

The GAO addresses just such a program:

Because the Department’s role in the production and distribution of the prepackaged news story is not revealed to the target audience, the prepackaged news story constitutes covert propaganda. We disagree with the Department’s contention that the prepackaged news stories are not covert propaganda because they contain only factual information. To constitute a legitimate information dissemination activity that does not violate the publicity or propaganda prohibition, the Department must inform the viewing public that the government is the source of the information disseminated.

In two successive sentences, the administration's argument (along with Max Boot and John Podhoretz) loses two of its main ingredients. Namely, that the factual basis of the information disseminated is immaterial to the question of propaganda and that failure to cite the government as the source--regardless of intent--qualifies as covert propaganda. The Pentagon met the government's own criteria for propaganda.

As is par for the course in this administration, the Pentagon, who has suspended the program, and its spokespeople are relying on recipients of the party line to forget that words have definitions. Words like occupation and invasion and torture. But propaganda does have a working definition, and the Pentagon program surely meets it.

The Office of Legal Council has insisted that the Executive Branch is not subject to the GAO, but even its legal semantics don't do much to alter the basic premise. The OLC claims that publicity doesn't meet the standard for propaganda so long as it is factual in nature and not meant to support a particular program or department policy.

Consistent with that view, OLC determined in 1988 that a statutory prohibition on using appropriated funds for "publicity or propaganda" precluded undisclosed agency funding of advocacy by third-party groups. We stated that "covert attempts to mold opinion through the undisclosed use of third parties" would run afoul of restrictions on using appropriated funds for "propaganda."

Assuming that they are correct in this assessment, the test is still met by the Pentagon program, as the military analysts were clearly supporting a specific policy, not merely disseminating facts. Those that didn't were denied access and those that did were rewarded. Documents obtained by the Times prove as much. Support of the administration's war policy was a prerequisite for participation, so clearly the program fails to adhere to the OLC's own standards for legal communications.

No matter how you slice it, the Pentagon's propaganda campaign was at the very least immoral and dishonest, and by many standards--the GAO, the OLC, and the US Code--probably illegal.

The possibility that there will be consequences aside (there won't), the mass media owes the American public at least a cursory story about the program. Voters deserve to know that the government of a free country is engaging in covert propaganda to push its policies through a complicit media.

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: