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Federal Government Admits to Paying Journalists for Favorable Stories
(Beyond Pesticides, May 26, 2004)
On May 10, 2005, USA Today reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture became the third federal agency to admit it paid a journalist to write favorable stories about its work. Documents released by USDA show it paid a freelance writer $9,375 in 2003 to "research and write articles for hunting and fishing magazines describing the benefits of NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) programs." This story emerges in the middle of a growing national debate on an independent media in the U.S., with a major speech recently delivered by Bill Moyers at the National Conference for Media Reform on May 15, 2005.

Dave Smith authored three articles that appeared in two hunting and fishing magazines, neither of which mentioned that he was paid by the government. According to USA Today, the stories focused on how money from a 2002 agricultural subsidy bill had been used to help preserve wetlands that hunting and fishing enthusiasts enjoy in Oklahoma and the Northwest.

Mr. Smith told USA Today that the magazines knew he'd been paid by the Agriculture Department. “I clearly spelled out to them,” in writing, “that I'd been hired to do this,” he told the newspaper. He said the magazines did not pay him for the articles. “I knew I couldn't be paid by them” since he'd already been compensated by USDA. Mr. Smith said he did not mention in the stories that he had been paid by NRCS. “I'd already explained to the magazines what the deal was and I thought they would take care of it from there.”

The contract came to light in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from various media outlets.

The USDA scandal is not the first such incident involving federal agencies. In 2003 and 2004, the Department of Education paid Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator and CEO of The Right Side Production company, $240,000 to help promote its No Child Left Behind program. Also the Department of Health and Human Services paid two columnists more than $40,000 to write brochures and train some of its staff without disclosing the payments to their readers, according to USA Today.

In light of this alarming news, Senators Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Harry Reid (D-NV) sent a letter to President Bush demanding that he recover the money paid to Mr. Williams, citing federal laws that prohibit such activity. In addition, the lawmakers also asked President Bush to disclose any payments to other journalists to push Administration policies, including President Bush's decision to privatize Social Security.

In their letter to President Bush, the Lawmakers cite federal laws that prohibit taxpayer funds from being spent by the Executive Branch for "Covert Propaganda."

“In addition to the illegality of these actions taken by your Administration, we believe that the act of bribing journalists to bias their news in favor of government policies undermines the integrity of our democracy. Actions like this were common in the Soviet Union, but until now, thought to be long extinguished in our country,” wrote the lawmakers in their letter to President Bush.

A similar issue involving the federal government and the quality of media coverage involving political topics, is that reporters will often not cover a story if the government doesn’t go on record. Therefore, if the government does not want something to be reported, they do not comment, and it is not news. This issue was recently covered by Bill Moyers, former host of the PBS show NOW, in a speech to the National Conferece for Media Reform.

“These ‘rules of the game’ permit Washington officials to set the agenda for journalism, leaving the press all too often simply to recount what officials say instead of subjecting their words and deeds to critical scrutiny. Instead of acting as filters for readers and viewers, sifting the truth from the propaganda, reporters and anchors attentively transcribe both sides of the spin invariably failing to provide context, background or any sense of which claims hold up and which are misleading. I decided long ago that this wasn’t healthy for democracy. I came to see that news is what people want to keep hidden and everything else is publicity.”

Read a complete transcript of Bill Moyers speech to the National Conferece for Media Reform.