WASHINGTON - Jon Stewart's satirical The Daily Show on Comedy Central likes to call itself "No. 1 in fake news." Team Bush seems determined to challenge the show for the title - with our tax dollars.
In memos sent last week to federal agency heads, the Bush White House rejected a Government Accountability Office ruling that it is illegal for federal agencies to feed TV stations prepackaged "news stories" that do not disclose the government's role in producing them.
Fake news stories, called "video news releases" in the public relations industry, are a huge business. The PR trade produces thousands a year, mostly for corporate clients. Designed to resemble independently reported news stories, these video news releases can be broadcast without editing, and to their everlasting shame, some TV stations have chosen to run them without identifying their government source.
All White House administrations use public funds to push their agendas, but they should make a decent effort to inform the public as to where the hype is coming from. Then voters can decide whether they think the money is well spent. But when TV stations put stories on the air without announcing that the stories are government-produced, the stations become megaphones for government propaganda.
Three times in recent months, the GAO ruled that the made-for-TV stories from the Department of Health and Human Services about the Medicare drug benefit and from the Office of National Drug Control Policy for the administration's anti-drug campaign violate federal laws against such covert propaganda.
But the Bush administration's latest memos, first reported Sunday by The New York Times, absolve the fake stories where there is "no advocacy of a particular viewpoint" in "the legitimate provision of information" concerning government programs.
Let's get real. In today's politically charged climate, every government announcement reflects a "particular viewpoint," whether it concerns abstinence over condoms, oil drilling over preservation of the Alaska wildlife refuge or whatever.
Unless Congress passes tougher laws, the onus to let the public know what it's watching ultimately lands firmly on the TV stations that broadcast the video news releases.
Just as newspaper reporters should not simply retype public relations handouts, TV stations should clearly identify a government-produced report for what it is, government propaganda, so people can decide how much of it they want to believe.
In that spirit, it is piquantly appropriate that the new memos were revealed during Sunshine Week, which began Sunday. Organized by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Sunshine Week features coverage and commentary by media across the country on threats to the public's right to know what our government is doing behind closed doors.
Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media writes on the conservative watchdog group's Web site that it is hypocritical of media to tout open government while using anonymous sources in many news stories. "I agree that the government has to be held to a higher standard," he writes. "But for the media to come out and say they're going to do it when they've failed so miserably is laughable."
He has a point buried in his broad-brushed statement. Reporters never should be allowed to use anonymous sources to cover sloppy reporting. But government officials also should not use fake news, closed meetings or the secrecy stamp to cover up their own sloppy or destructive governance.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.