Fact or Fiction?

It's tough to tell where journalism ends and politics begins

When the scandal first broke back in March it sounded too ripe to believe. The Bush Administration had produced faux-news segments in which an actor portraying a reporter touts the benefits of the contentious new Medicare bill that had only just narrowly passed through Congress. Two of the videos end with the reporter signing off, “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.” Committed to propagandizing equally to all persons, regardless of ethnicity or national origin, the Administration also produced a third video narrated in Spanish and featuring the hard-hitting reporting of “Alberto Garcia.” The White House then distributed the three videos to television news stations without clearly indicating their origins. In all, 40 stations around the country broadcast the segments. Many simply integrated the videos into their regularly scheduled news broadcasts; viewers were left clueless.

In a slightly baffling defense, the White House persistently insisted that Karen Ryan really was a freelance reporter and not, despite all indications, an actress. Unfortunately for Karen and her budding press career—and for the White House and its rapidly diminishing credibility—a prompt investigation by the Columbia Journalism Review quickly proved otherwise. More predictably, Administration officials insisted that all the fuss was for nothing: the videos were simply objective and informative pieces, meant to help educate Americans about the changes in Medicare and how they could best take advantage of their new prescription drug benefits.

Last Wednesday, the non-partisan Congressional General Accounting Office (GAO) begged to differ, ruling that the videos were in serious violation of Federal anti-propaganda laws. In addition to failing to alert viewers that the videos had been produced with their own tax dollars by the Department of Health and Human Services, the GAO asserted that the videos’ included “notable omissions and weaknesses” in their coverage of the new Medicare law.

The irony is that while the Administration was busy packaging politics as news, the news is itself becoming ever more politicized. The whole Medicare video ploy rested on the assumption that viewers would swallow the message with greater credulity if it were framed as journalism. But if the Bush Administration plans to stick with this strategy, it better get to work preserving Americans’ trust in the news.

Lately, the objectivity of American media coverage has come in for a close bit of scrutiny. Michael Moore’s new film “Farenheit 9-11,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes on Saturday, has reportedly shocked many viewers with its graphic footage from Iraq—footage that is rarely shown on American news. And it’s not just Moore. The polemicists over at PBS will also be airing a documentary this July entitled “War Feels Like War,” which paints much the same picture.


This media sanitization may just reflect skittish news producers, but it obviously also serves—intentionally, or not—certain political ends. Just think back to the Bush Administration’s refusal to allow the media to air video footage of the flag draped coffins as they return from Iraq. Their justification: publicizing the anonymous images would violate the privacy of the victims’ families. Privacy? Come on, that’s so pre 9-11. Someone needs to tell these guys about the Patriot Act.

This sort of deference is, of course, nothing new. In March of 2003, as the nation prepared for war, a leaked British intelligence memo revealed that the American National Security Agency (NSA) was conducting a joint operation with the British. Turns out the government was bugging the New York offices and residences of U.N. Security Council members as part of its strategy to secure an authorization for the imminent invasion. Sounds like a pretty big scandal, no? The New York Times and most other major American media didn’t seem to think so; they decided to pass on the story.

I don’t want to sound too paranoid or cynical. After all, the last few months have also witnessed some first-rate investigative reporting into the Abu Ghraib scandal by the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, and 60 Minutes II. But journalists who cross the White House should be forewarned—this is an Administration known for blacklisting its perceived enemies in the press corps, withholding interviews and other goodies. You can hardly blame journalists for worrying that an indiscrete article or bit of footage might land them out on the street, looking for work with Karen and Alberto.

Sasha Post ’05 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears regularly.