Published on Thursday, June 16, 2005 by the Chicago Tribune
USDA Plants Its Own News
Critics Liken Radio, TV Spots to Propaganda
by Andrew Martin and Jeff Zeleny
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture has churned out three dozen radio and television news segments since the first of the year that promote a controversial trade agreement with Central America opposed by labor unions, the sugar industry and many members of Congress, including some Republicans.
Amid an intense debate over government-funded efforts to influence news coverage, the prepackaged reports have been widely distributed to broadcast outlets across the country for easy insertion into newscasts.
About a third of the reports deal specifically with the politically powerful sugar industry, which has emerged as the major obstacle to the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA.
In one radio segment, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said that passing CAFTA should be an easy decision for members of Congress.
"I can't imagine how any senator or House member from ag country could stand up and vote against CAFTA," Johanns said. "It makes no sense to me. It's voting against our producers."
In another radio segment promoting CAFTA, Allen Johnson, a top U.S. trade official, dismissed the sugar industry's "dire forecasts" about CAFTA's impact as "a Chicken Little sort of thing that isn't real."
The issue of the government's vast public relations apparatus trying to influence the public is hardly new. The Bush administration has taken that practice to aggressive levels on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to education and trade policy.
The USDA's CAFTA reports were produced while the administration was dealing with the fallout over its payments to journalists to tout its policies. One television commentator, Armstrong Williams, was paid $240,000 to champion the administration's education plans.
Critics contend that such policies blur the line between government propaganda and legitimate reporting, and the Government Accountability Office described the prepackaged news reports as "covert propaganda" if the government agency does not clearly identify its role in the production of the report.
President Bush said he advocated a "nice, independent relationship between the White House, the administration and the press" when the Williams payment was made public. But in later remarks, Bush said he didn't object to government-produced news segments as long as "they're based upon facts, not advocacy." He also said the burden was on the news stations to disclose that they obtained the reports from the government.
On Tuesday, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), whose states produce sugar, sent a letter to Johanns objecting to pro-CAFTA news reports produced by the government.
"These releases, which are produced and distributed with taxpayer dollars, are provided to 675 rural radio stations and numerous televisions stations where they are run, without disclosure of their source, as news reports," the senators wrote. "We are concerned that many listeners in rural America may believe these releases are objective news reports, rather than political statements from the USDA which are intended to advance a specific trade agenda."
On Wednesday, USDA spokesman Ed Loyd defended the practice, noting that the reports are all clearly identified as coming from the USDA.
"They are reports about what the secretary of agriculture has said," Loyd said. "We clearly state that we are the source. We're not disguising that we are the source."
But the taglines disclosing the USDA's role generally are at the end of the reports, and some news stations have dropped those taglines, apparently in an effort to make the reports appear to be their own work.
John Nichols, the senior producer of "Market to Market," a weekly show produced by Iowa Public Television that airs in 21 states, said the USDA has been providing a raft of information about CAFTA. He said he uses the reports as a "tip sheet" but has a policy against airing the stories in their entirety.
"I wouldn't say it's a source that's void of bias," Nichols said Wednesday. "I'm concerned about what their role is. Their job is to promote, and I'm just not willing to be spoon-fed."
But too much of the government-produced information, he said, lands unedited in local radio and TV broadcasts.
"We make a distinct effort to have balance," Nichols said. "But you're not going to find that in all of traditional farm broadcasting."
Attractive to small stations
Several radio executives said smaller stations are more likely to air the reports because they lack the resources to do their own reporting. Some radio networks with larger staffs have stopped using the government-produced news reports out of concerns of objectivity.
Sonja Hillgren of Farm Journal Media said her company's "AgDay" television program uses USDA video packages "when they are well-balanced and very strongly identified as coming from the USDA."
"The USDA does some good work," she said, "and we don't want to ignore that resource."
In the sugar-cane producing state of Louisiana, Don Molino, the farm director for the Louisiana Agri-News Network, said he uses the USDA radio reports about three days a week.
"I use a lot of their stuff verbatim," he said. "Everything I've been able to use has been pretty well balanced as far as I can tell."
On more controversial issues such as CAFTA, Molino said he normally follows up the USDA report with a comment from a Louisiana member of Congress who opposes the trade deal.
In the year since the Bush administration signed CAFTA, it has struggled to rally support in the face of opposition from labor unions and the sugar industry. CAFTA is an agreement among the United States, the Dominican Republic and five Central American nations: Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Its supporters note that CAFTA eventually would eliminate tariffs for U.S. exports to Central America and help stabilize democracies in the region. But its critics worry that American jobs would be lost to Central America and that the deal eventually would lead to a flood of cheap imported sugar into the U.S.
The CAFTA news reports came from the USDA's Broadcast Media and Technology Center, which produces about 90 television news reports each year, often airing on "AgDay" and "U.S. Farm Report," both nationally syndicated programs with "strong rural viewership," according to the center's Web site. The center also produces more than 2,000 radio reports each year that are sent to 675 stations and are available on the Internet.
Since the first of the year, the center has produced 33 radio reports related to CAFTA, most of them in the last three months as opposition to the agreement has become more vocal and a vote in Congress neared. There have been three television reports.
Radio is a particularly effective form of communication in rural areas, a point made clear in the 2004 presidential race by the flood of radio ads purchased by the Bush campaign.
One of the USDA's television reports provides a relatively balanced account, with Johanns extolling CAFTA and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) criticizing the deal.
But the other reports mention the criticism of CAFTA only briefly or not at all, and instead offer a positive spin. For instance, in a radio report from April, Johanns said, "If there was ever an agreement that was good for agriculture, this is it."
That same month, Johnson, the trade official, suggested in a USDA news report that the sugar industry could jeopardize its government price protections if it continued to oppose CAFTA.
"Folks in the rest of the economy and folks in the rest of agriculture and folks that are interested in building relationships with democracies here in our neighborhood begin to look at the sugar industry as an impediment to that progress," he said. "That's not good for them."
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