04/28/2006 12:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Gov't PR Manipulates Taxpayers With Their Own Money (Plus, Bin Laden's Bette Davis Moment)


the hidden face of terror

More of your tax dollars are being used to mislead you than ever before - and the GSA is promising "tremendous sales growth" for publicly-funded hucksterism. Even Congressional testimony is being written by PR firms. And the only tiny satisfaction to be gained from it is the thought that, in trying to deceive you about Iraq and terrorism, the government may have given Bin Laden a "Bette Davis moment."

PR Spending Goes Sky-High

The GAO studied the PR spending of seven departments from fiscal 2003 through mid-2005 (WARNING: pdf file) and found spending commitments of $1.62 billion for ad agencies and PR firms during that period. While many are innocuous, others are pointless at best (does the Defense Department really need to pay for a "Hook Up 2 Golf" media campaign?). Others are - to say the least - a real problem.

The Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch blog is an invaluable resource for tracking the government's voter-funded spin. They write of the GAO report, "Bush not only doubled PR spending relative to Clinton, but he keeps increasing the size of the propaganda pot." And they remind us of the of the Administration's PR excesses:

...the "sell job" for the invasion of Iraq. Payola pundits Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus. Stooge "reporter" Jeff Gannon / James Guckert. Video news releases determined to be covert propaganda by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Selling War To Unwary Consumers

They also point to some questionable line items in the GAO study, which is itself dependent on the honesty of each agency in reporting their expenditures:

One ... contract ... entailed "extensive research ... for message development that presents the Army's strategic perspective in the Global War on Terrorism." Worth $2.5 million from 2003 to 2005, the contract included "developing communications plans ... and conducting analysis regarding the most effective way to respond to issues raised by the key stakeholders and by influencers." A similar $1.1 million PR contract in 2005 involved "media pitches, speakers service and bureau, and news story development in support of Soldiers in the Global War on Terror."

Another contract -- again "missing firm data" -- was for "a senior analyst to analyze the perceptions, activities, and events surrounding the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and assist in developing public affairs plans for other Army personnel issues."

For Government PR Vendors, The Future's So Bright Ya Gotta Wear Shades

And the beat goes on. As PR Watch points out , the GSA (the government's procurement arm) is "actively soliciting proposals for new contractors," while enthusiastically observing that "potential for tremendous sales growth" in the PR and marketing areas.

Here's a choice new contract that somehow slipped in under the radar:

... a small Virginia-based marketing and consulting firm ... won "a competitive review to advise the Office of the Chief of the Army Reserve on its strategic communications," reports O'Dwyer's. The contract is worth $510,000 a year and involves "internal and external communications efforts targeting soldiers, families, the public, and Congressional audiences" on the Army Reserve's "vision of the future." Specific responsibilities include "researching, writing, editing and reviewing executive-level communications like speeches and Congressional testimony (emphasis mine), as well as development of external PR and evaluation and support of existing programs like the Reserve's Ambassador Program."

We knew it already, but this contract makes it official: "Congressional testimony" is now just another PR campaign stunt, not a constitutional obligation. (And it's hard not to wonder whether that "vision of the future" includes more back-door drafts and down-armored Humvees.)

Zarqawi As Celebrity Spokesmodel

Perhaps the most disgraceful ongoing PR campaign (that we know about) is one the Washington Post recently uncovered:

The U.S. military is conducting a propaganda campaign to magnify the role of the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to internal military documents and officers familiar with the program. The effort has raised his profile in a way that some military intelligence officials believe may have overstated his importance and helped the Bush administration tie the war to the organization responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

War and mass murder as PR fodder: Welcome to Republican America, 21st Century style. Says the Post:

"... some senior intelligence officers believe Zarqawi's role may have been overemphasized by the propaganda campaign, which has included leaflets, radio and television broadcasts, Internet postings and at least one leak to an American journalist. Although Zarqawi and other foreign insurgents in Iraq have conducted deadly bombing attacks, they remain 'a very small part of the actual numbers.'"

Meet Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: He's been presented as the "face" of "Iraq-based terror," selling a phony Saddam/Al Qaeda connection the same way Col. Sanders sells chicken.

This had led some, including Joseph Cannon, to speculate that the latest video is a hoax. While I can't go that far (you're welcome to read and judge for yourself), I will say that coverage of Zarqawi's video seemed to eclipse Bin Laden's own, and crowded the him off the front pages just as he was providing an unpleasant reminder of that escape at Tora Bora.

He's Got "Bin Laden Eyes"

Imagine: Zarqawi - that nobody! - upstaging the big guy himself! The indignity Osama must have felt. And the impudent pup even called Bin Ladin his "emir" - dissing him by lavish praise.

It was like nothing so much as Bette Davis being publicly "thanked" (and dismissed) in that famous "awards ceremony" scene from "All About Eve." Remember? She was Margo Channing, the older actress who's been befriended by a young actress - who in turns befriends influential media people, and eventually takes her place.

I can picture Osama dabbing at the tears of rage in his kohl-darkened eyes and saying to himself, "That bitch! I gave him everything!" And that's the only satisfaction I can get from this grotesque media campaign: the thought of Osama as Bette and Zarqawi as Anne Baxter.

But the truth is, we're the ones being played. Or as someone says in the movie, "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy ride."

A Night Light