The Law: The Executive Branch and Propaganda: The Limits of Legal Restrictions

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The Executive Branch and Propaganda

During the administration of President George W. Bush, a number of executive agencies have expended public funds to promote the president and his policies. In some cases, the efforts would appear to be merely wasteful of public funds. For example, the White House has expended public funds to create and maintain Barney.gov, a child-friendly Web site that celebrates the president's Scottish terriers, Barney and Miss Beazley (Froomkin 2004).

In many instances, though, executive agencies have employed propaganda to promote the president's policies (propaganda, as I define it, is "government communications that selectively employ facts to persuade members of the public of a particular viewpoint.") To cite just a few examples: in June 2003, the Department of Education hired Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator and syndicated columnist, to trumpet the positive aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act (P.L. 107-110) on his television program. (1) In April 2004, the Internal Revenue Service issued press releases to remind taxpayers of the looming income tax filing deadline. The missives also told readers that "America has a choice: It can continue to grow the economy and create new jobs as the president's policies are doing, or it can raise taxes on American families and small businesses, hurting economic recovery and future job creation" (Aversa 2005). In 2005, the Social Security Administration (SSA) drew up a "strategic communications plan" to promote through speeches, public events, mass media, and other means the president's contention that Social Security faces a funding crisis and the benefits program needs to be partially privatized (Pear 2005). Going public, President Bush himself undertook a "60 stops in 60 days" tour of the United States at which he and a number of government officials exhorted Social Security reform. (2) Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a "Broadcast Media and Technology Center" that produces news-like segments that it distributes to local television stations advocating the administration's policies (Barstow and Stein 2005). (3) These are but a few recent examples of executive branch propaganda. (4)

Of course, the administration of George W. Bush is not the only one that has engaged in public relations activities that provoke criticism. Presidents have employed propaganda for at least a century (McCamy 1939). During the presidency of William J. Clinton, the Department of Health and Human Services produced videos promoting the administration's legislation to reform Medicare (Kosar 2004a, 5). And, lest it be forgotten, President Woodrow Wilson through executive order set up the Committee on Public Information, which produced propaganda and enlisted both journalists and filmmakers to promote the United States' efforts in World War I and quash bad news reports thereon (Creel 1920).

There is nothing inherently inappropriate in an agency expending appropriated funds to communicate with the public. (5) As one of the Hoover Commission task forces wrote a half-century ago:

   Apart from his responsibility as spokesman, the department head has
   another obligation in a democracy: to keep the public informed about
   the activities of his agency. How far to go and what media to use in
   this effort present touchy issues of personal and administrative
   integrity. But of the basic obligation there can be little
   doubt. (Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the
   Government 1949, 57)

Even government communications which attempt to persuade members of the public to behave differently may not necessarily be inappropriate. For example, few would likely criticize government-sponsored advertising that encourages citizens to wear their seatbelts while driving motor vehicles or that urges hikers and campers to avoid setting forest fires.

However, executive agency communications with the public that promote a president or his policies are a matter for concern for a number of reasons. …