A headline in the Sunday NY Times (3/13/05) asks “Is it News or Public Relations?” The article that follows provides several examples (out of hundreds evidently) that illustrate how government-packaged video segments are “seamlessly integrated” into regular news programs as if “reporters” were presenting real news stories, not just administration fluff pieces. Between the stifling of the regular press, the phonied-up town meetings the administration orchestrates and its secrecy about national concerns it is difficult for ordinary people to get good information. One has to be determined and diligent indeed to get beyond opinion and propaganda.
According to The Times article, a code of ethics does exist that requires broadcasters to “…disclose the origin of information and label all material provided by outsiders.” Apparently the FCC has the power to enforce the ethics code and could take measures to insist on disclosure. As some lawyers “experienced with FCC rules” have said “Listeners and viewers are entitled to know by whom they are being persuaded.”
Unfortunately, ethical considerations and factual presentations are in short supply these days. The Congressional leadership is doing a masterful job of controlling inquiries into the conduct of its members and limiting consideration of bills it doesn’t care to debate. In the case of Tom DeLay, Speaker Hastert has gone out of his way to protect the majority leader from having to answer questions about his conduct. He removed Chairman Hefley and another Republican from the House Ethics Committee and replaced them with pals of DeLay –Tom Cole and Lamar Smith – both of whom have contributed to the DeLay defense fund as have many other Republican lawmakers as well as business interests. How this will all shake out is hard to tell at this point, but at least the DeLay story can no longer be easily contained by the determined Hastert.
And happily, if one has the time and inclination, C-Span offers a splendid opportunity to explore important issues in depth. This Sunday, a re-broadcast of last week’s meeting of The House Ways and Means Committee was especially informative. While programs like this may not be everyone’s notion of riveting TV, tuning in can provide invaluable background not readily available from other sources. The committee’s guest last week was David Walker, US Comptroller General, who spoke about the fiscal problems confronting the nation.
Most specifically he said that the country is on an “unsustainable fiscal path,” the biggest problem being one of “solvency.” The national debt and the interest on that debt represent a far greater problem for the future than Social Security and, right now the national debt is many times greater than any deficiencies associated with Social Security when it begins to draw on the trust fund. Some members of the committee also expressed concern regarding the fact that we are in effect ‘mortgaging the country’s finances to foreign powers’ from whom we have borrowed to service our debt. It was refreshing, if chastening, to hear Mr. Walker’s unvarnished, straightforward assessment of the country’s general financial condition, far removed from the hysteria that has recently attached to discussions about Social Security.
And it was a far cry from that odd comment by White House Budget Director, Joshua Bolton, that “transition costs” associated with establishing private accounts would not increase the government debt because sometime, way in the future, retirees would be depending on such accounts instead of government-administered ones. Of course his particular analysis failed to note the matter of the annuities retirees would be forced to activate upon retirement, as well as the current deficit, the shrinking dollar and tax cuts paid for on margin or, more to the point, on the backs of middle and working-class Americans. The very point Mr. Walker was trying to make is that government needs to address the broader national condition of which Social Security is a smaller and less compelling problem than is the country’s overall solvency.
On a different note, President Bush lapsed into his smart-alecky collegiate mode at the annual Gridiron dinner over the weekend. Although the event may be a light-hearted, if ultra-formal affair, the president showed his lack of taste and judgment once again when he joked that one way to get North Korean leader, Kim Jon Il, out of office would be to convince him to hold a presidential election and then “… send Bob Shrum over to help him.” (Bob Shrum being the Democrats’ presidential Campaign Manager) In an effort to be funny Bush took the serious matter of North Korea and reduced it to a mean-spirited political joke – silly, small-minded and definitely lacking in “gravitas.”

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