Government Spending

Pundit Payola

Accidental propagandists.


On January 7, 2005, USA Today revealed that the Department of Education had paid television and radio personality Armstrong Williams more than $240,000 to, among other things, "regularly comment on [the No Child Left Behind Act] during the course of his broadcasts." Which he dutifully did, though without disclosing his government paycheck. After the discovery, a series of similar pundit payola revelations briefly made the news, and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) demanded that the department's inspector general conduct an investigation into nearly $5 million of the agency's public relations spending.

The inspector general's report, which came out in early September, concluded that "none of the grants resulted in covert propaganda." But that conclusion was based on the premise that the department didn't necessarily realize that the bought-off journalists would not add disclaimers to their discussions. In 10 of 11 cases studied, there were no disclaimers.

The Education Department wasn't exactly counting every last dime either. According to USA Today's follow-up report, "More than $1.7 million…went to outside public relations contracts that officials said resulted in no visible media products."

Such paid and unlabeled government propaganda is actually common, especially in such tax sinkholes as the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which has spent $1 billion since 1998 on both direct and unlabeled anti-drug promotions in advertising and TV shows. Typically the only federal government watchdogs that raise eyebrows at covert propaganda are inspectors general and the Government Accountability Office, both of which can spring into action only at the request of a member of Congress. As far as day-to-day monitoring goes, a February 2005 Congressional Research Service report had this grim news: "At present, the federal government has little knowledge of the extent of agency expenditures on public communications."