Under the Bush Administration, the USDA has come under scrutiny for several questionable practices. Before grassroots organizations concerned with the processing of beef and the possibility of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (better known as mad cow disease) transmission pointed out the practice of hiring former lobbyists for national beef organizations as staff members.
Now it seems the USDA has made journalists into lobbyists. According to an 11 May 2005 article in the Washington Post written by Christopher Lee, a USDA agency paid a journalist to write articles to promote one of its programs. What could be better than that? A freelance journalist gets to write for the government about the government with access as permitted by that government agency and then sell that article. So basically the journalist gets paid to do research and attempt to sell the article and then gets paid by the publication.
According to the Washington Post article the freelancer, Dave Smith, a wonderful name for someone who will no doubt not want to be attached to this scandal in the future, was paid $7,500. He was paid by the Natural Resources Conservation Service to describe the wonderful benefits of their farm bill programs on wildlife habitat and the environment.
He was contracted in September 2003, and the information was acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request, meaning that neither Smith nor the NRCS gave out this information willingly. He was contracted to write five stories for $1,875 each and he was then to “contact and work magazine editors to place the articles in targeted publications.” Those publications would be hunting and fishing magazines who now claim no knowledge of the deal Smith had with the USDA.
Smith was a bit cagey with the Washington Post journalist, saying he was paid “between $7,500 and $7,800 on the contract, but the total could have been as much as $9, 375.”
This, of course, is nothing to the $241,000 that commentator Armstrong Williams was paid by the Education Department for promoting Bush’s education policy or the $21,500 columnist Maggie Gallagher was paid by the Department of Health and Human Services was paid to promote the president’s marriage initiative. After these disclosures were made earlier this year, President Bush said the government would no longer pay journalists to promote his programs and yet he hasn’t revealed how much public monies went to pay journalists to be his lobbyists.
The greater problem, of course, is that journalists are supposed to provide objective and unbiased accounts of news filtered through their own personal socio-political and cultural biases. They are generally paid poorly for doing so. PR people, lobbyists and journalist all work with words and are, at heart, wordsmiths. Yet there is a line that separates journalists and PR and lobbyists and without a degree of separation how can the public view journalists and their words without suspicion? People who are paid to be spokespersons for policies or products should be clearly labeled as such. They shouldn’t masquerade as journalists.
If journalists, freelance and staff begin regularly taking money to promote events—and these three obviously didn’t feel it was wrong to do so—then where will the public find the real news? On blogs? In the alternative press that struggles to survive and pays little to almost nothing? This is poor reward for integrity and the public should get a full accounting of just how much of our tax dollars are spent on PR.Powered by Sidelines