Friday, March 18, 2005

Should Government Do Propaganda/Education? (revised)

When David Bernstein, libertarian, on the Volokh Conspiracy and Richard Cohen, liberal, on the Washington Post agree, thoughtful people have to pay attention:

Bernstein opines :

"equally troubling in a somewhat different way are p.r. campaigns by government agencies that seek to build support for those agencies' 'missions.' Subsidizing, say, a pro-drug war point of view through a government p.r. campaign (hardly a partisan issue, as the overwhelming majority of both Republican and Democratic politicians favor it) is the economic equivalent of taxing the anti-drug war point of view. Americans wouldn't tolerate the latter, and we shouldn't tolerate the government using our tax money to encourage us to give it even more of our money (and freedom), meanwhile drowning out other voices with a tidal wave of statist shilling. I'm not even fond of the idea of the government using its money to, say, discourage drug use, as this is still an untoward interference in the marketplace of ideas, subject to all sorts of abuse (such as the 'food pyramid' dictated for years by agricultural interest groups). But it strikes me that that sort of government noodging is a less dangerous animal than the government using money allocated to implement programs to propagandize in favor of those programs."
Cohen says:
"Take, for instance, the government's smarmy practice of preparing video news releases and packaging them as actual television news. The New York Times recently detailed how government agencies prepare admiring reports on what they are doing and then send them off to local TV stations, which use them, sometimes pretending the reports are their own. Only a fool would expect the TV industry -- especially local TV news -- to grow up and embrace professional standards, but the government is a different story. It's ours. We fund it. It should not be using our money to propagandize us. "
My comments:
  • If the purpose of government is to solve problems (per Pres. Bush), sometimes the solution is government education. USDA was formed to help farmers farm better, a mission which evolved into the Cooperative Extension Service. During the Dust Bowl days, the old Soil Conservation Service (now Natural Resources Conservation Service) was created to educate farmers in conservation. Closer to home, VDOT (Virginia Department of Transportation) is running ads urging sanity in driving.
  • Many programs can be implemented only if the public is educated--for example if Bush's personal accounts ever get enacted, there will be a vast education effort.
  • Can one draw the line between "propaganda" which is wrong and "education", between building support for the mission and fulfilling the mission? Bernstein's comments on anti-drug ads and the nutrition pyramid show it's more difficult than one might imagine. One man's propaganda is another's education.
  • Advertising like the US Army's "Be all that you can be" has the effect of promoting the Army, while disregarding the feelings of the pacifists among us (not that many people care about the Amish and the Quakers). Not to mention that it grates on the nerves of at least one former draftee.
  • We, the American people, don't know what we want. When Rep. Waxman asked GAO to look at the conflicting laws, it said that the Office of National Drug Control Policy didn't violate the law by preparing video news releases, it violated the law because the identification of the source was only on the case, not within the body of the release. OMB and the Justice Department seem to say ONDCP was okay.
Lost in much of the controversy is the press release. Press releases, both corporate and government, have always been written so a lazy reporter/editor could set the content in type and go. (I've a vague memory of some memoir or novel about the Army where the protagonist spent his time filling out blank releases saying "Pvt. Joe Blow, of Podunk, successfully completed basic training at the U.S.Army's Fort Dix. He is now a trained killer...." Anyone remember it?) There's little difference between a printed release and a video release. GAO says a statement at the end of the release is sufficient to make it legal, but that's very easily edited out.

I agree with GAO that the identification should be in the video, but this is a tempest in a teapod. The real fault lies with the news media. The government may have entrapped them into bad journalism, but I've no pity.

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