“Media Matters,” week ending January 7, 2005; by Jamison Foser

“I wouldn't call it a tragedy. ... We shouldn't be spending a nickel on this.” -- Radio host Michael Savage, on the December 26 tsunami resulting from an earthquake in Southeast Asia.

Week ending January 7, 2005

This week:

More fake “news” from the Bush administration

Social Security reporting leaves much to be desired

O'Reilly took on Moyers, continued to lie about Media Matters

Quote of the week:

“I wouldn't call it a tragedy. ... We shouldn't be spending a nickel on this.”
-- Radio host Michael Savage, on the December 26 tsunami resulting from an earthquake in Southeast Asia.

More fake “news” from the Bush administration

This week brought two more examples of the Bush administration disguising paid propaganda as “news” in order to advance its agenda.

In May 2004, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that the Bush administration violated federal law by releasing television “news segments” that favorably depicted a new Medicare law -- without indicating that the government created and paid for the segments. On January 6, the GAO announced that the Bush administration again broke the law by producing similar “news segments” about drug use, saying the segments “constitute covert propaganda” because they did not identify the government as the source of the materials. The GAO added that the administration “made it impossible for the targeted viewing audience to ascertain that these stories were produced by the government.”

But that isn't the only new example of the Bush administration promoting its policies through the use of paid propaganda masquerading as news. USA Today reported January 7 that the administration paid television host, columnist, and commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote administration policy on his television show, and to encourage other African American journalists to do the same. According to USA Today, “The campaign, part of an effort to promote No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required commentator Armstrong Williams 'to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts,' and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004.”

According to USA Today, Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington noted that the payments to Williams may be illegal because of prohibitions on government propaganda.

Social Security reporting leaves much to be desired

As Media Matters, Daily Howler, Columbia Journalism Review's CampaignDesk.org, and others have frequently noted, the media has frequently provided inaccurate and sloppy reporting about the ongoing debate over Social Security.

News reports have typically overstated the problems Social Security faces, and often understate the amount of funds the Bush administration's anticipated privatization plan would divert from the system. The reports downplay the reduction in benefits that retirees would experience.

New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston wrote in an email to Poynter Online:

Social Security reporting is a topic rich with contradictions, inaccuracies, innumeracy, muddled thinking, narrow sourcing, little independent thinking about the issues are (as opposed to what the politicians say are the issues) and a lack of tenacity.

It is also important, unlike the fluffy news media beat reporting about how we cover Paris [Hilton], Laci [Peterson] and other ephemera.

The Wall Street Journal's David Crook replied:

Surely we can all agree that the Social Security reform is likely to be the most important Washington story of the year. It affects every citizen of the country and every one of our readers. ... It will play out every day for months and months. Its ramifications will be with us for decades.


Rarely do we have an opportunity to follow a story that we know going in is of profound importance to the entire nation.

So perhaps we should all collectively promise to get it right. Just this once. On just this one continuing story, we'll check our math, go to another source or two, get people on the record, challenge the assumptions, run the numbers again, look at the substance and not just the politics.

There are no daily time pressures on this story. Nothing that matters to readers will change if reporters file a hour later or if the story runs on Thursday instead of Wednesday. Everything will matter, however, if editors insist on getting a half-baked story in just because the sked's already been sent or if reporters let their sources spin the facts to fit their ideologies.

Let's do it right this time -- and show the public the vital role that a [sic] unbiased press plays in a democracy. It will do wonders for circulation.

We couldn't agree more, and we're heartened to see Johnston, Cook, and others so concerned about the quality of Social Security reporting. For our part, Media Matters will continue to correct mistakes we find in Social Security reporting, and, we hope, serve as a resource for readers, activists, and reporters struggling to make sense of a complex issue.

O'Reilly took on Moyers, continued to lie about Media Matters

This week, Bill O'Reilly unleashed a torrent of abuse on retired PBS host and Peabody Award winner Bill Moyers, calling Moyers “totalitarian.” In the process, O'Reilly accused Moyers of using “a bunch of propaganda from the Soros-funded website Media Matters to make his case.” Media Matters has previously noted that, to date, we have received no money from financier and philanthropist George Soros or from any of his organizations. Despite O'Reilly's false attacks on Media Matters, he continues to duck company president and CEO David Brock's offer to discuss O'Reilly's charges.

O'Reilly also said Moyers “ought to give back his Peabody.” Perhaps O'Reilly should return his first?

Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.