Bamboozlers On the Loose

For evidence of state propaganda, just look around you


We can thank Armstrong Williams, the Ketchum public relations agency, and especially the downsizable dullards at the Department of Education for at least having the courage to be blatant: It's not often you get a chance to see the raw machinery of pure government propaganda on display.

Which is an excellent time to remind yourself that every day across this great land, governments and state agencies are not only lying to you, they're spending your own money to convince you to do or believe what they want. And we're not talking about Armstrong's paltry $241,000, or Ketchum's drop-in-the-bucket $1 million, either—more like hundreds of millions of dollars, at minimum, every year.

To cite a random example few reading this will have heard of, Los Angeles' notorious Department of Water and Power has spent more than $4.8 million since 1999 marketing a Green Power Program that currently has a measly 27,000 subscribers (out of 1.4 million DWP customers overall).

Among the Green Power Program's marketing expenses, according to the L.A. Daily News, was a "February 2002 VIP 'Voices for a Green L.A.' concert," which the PR firm Fleishman-Hillard (holder at the time of a $3 million annual contract from the DWP, though Water and Power has its own PR staff), subcontracted to PR firm the Lee Andrews Group, "which in turn hired a company to manage the concert; that firm, called Community Art Resources, then hired a four-star restaurant called Patina to cater it."

L.A.'s taxpayer-funded P.R. boondoggles, like the Bush Administration's last week, have finally become too embarrassing to ignore. There was the Port of Los Angeles' $488,000 contract with Fleishman-Hilliard, which paid for (among other things) four Fleishman employees to sit in the audience at Mayor James Hahn's State of the Port speech (total cost: $2,240), plus $169.74 worth of reading coverage of the speech in local newspapers.

Of course, this is all just peanuts compared to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which since 1998 has spent $1 billion trying (and failing) to convince us that smoking the odd joint might kill you, or at least cause terrorism. When the TV networks squawked about the lost ad time, the ONDCP foreshadowed the Armstrong Williams payola scheme by suggesting some anti-drug story lines instead. It was a win-win, really.

There are two profoundly undemocratic through-lines in the state's repeated purchase of propaganda. The first is the foul notion that we are a nation of people who literally can't handle the truth, and so must be influenced in ways we don't even realize by a government that knows our best interests better than we do. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is totalitarian thinking, familiar to anyone who has to clench their teeth at the Venceremos! mural every day or to live through entire decades where entertainment products were vetted and decoded for secret political messages.

The second is an alarmingly cavalier approach to pissing away taxpayer money. Department of Education spokesman John Gibbons told USA Today (which broke the Armstrong Williams story with a Freedom of Information Act request) that the contract followed standard government procedure. The deal was "a permissable use of taxpayer funds," Gibbons told the New York Times, and then he flat-out lied to the Washington Post: "Armstrong went out and talked about [the No Child Left Behind Act]. We didn't have anything to do with that." (The Department of Ed's contract specifically called for Williams to go out and talk up NCLB.)

That kind of response—unapologetic, evasive, arrogant—suggests a governance culture of irritable paternalism. Is this strain isolated within the Department of Education?

I think you'd have to be pretty naive to think so. NCLB is child's play compared to the public arm-twisting required for the War in Iraq, and both the Pentagon and the State Department are obsessed about America's public relations "crisis" abroad, especially in the Middle East. The stakes are infinitely higher, and the root problem (hostility toward the world's lone superpower) much less tractable.

In December, the Defense Science Board, a quasi-independent think tank that produces thick policy reports for the Defense Department, tried once again to tiptoe around the administration's bull-in-the-china-shop act, and its more unsavory alliances. "Words, in tone and substance, should avoid offence where possible; messages should seek to reduce, not increase, perceptions of arrogance, opportunism, and double standards," the DSB urged. "It is noteworthy that opinion is at its hardest against America in precisely those places ruled by (what Muslims call) 'apostates' and tyrants—the tyrants we support. This should give us pause."

But after the pause, when the style and substance of U.S. policy is revealed as remaining the same? Propaganda.

"There is no reason," the report concluded, "why the United States cannot sustain an activity analogous to the UK government-funded BBC World Service." If you think Armstrong Williams is bad, wait 'til you get a load of the American Beeb, or the proposed $150 million "Center for Strategic Communication," which would dole out money to deserving bloggers, among others. Hell hath no propagandist like a government on a mission.