Media Manipulation by Government is Nothing New
Recent revelations that the Bush administration paid Armstrong Williams and
other journalists to promote its policies in the press have generated
great consternation and prompted public apologies as well as ongoing
investigations. Although Tribune Media Services, which syndicates
Williams' weekly newspaper column, severed its ties with the
commentator, the controversy persists.
Backroom political efforts
to influence the press are not new. There is a rich tradition in the
American experience of political figures trying to shape journalistic
coverage. After the Revolution, for example, it was quite common and
accepted practice for politicians to disguise their identity with
pseudonyms in order to write highly partisan newspaper commentaries
favoring their particular political stances.
and Thomas Jefferson, for instance, engaged in a ferocious journalistic
feud over public policy issues in the young republic. Even though the
two Founding Fathers served together in George Washington's Cabinet,
they hated each other. Everything about them clashed: philosophies,
backgrounds and personalities.
Jefferson supported the French
Revolution; Hamilton was horrified by its excesses and preferred the
British tradition of constitutional monarchy. During the controversy
over Jay's Treaty with Britain in 1795, Hamilton used the pen name
Camillus (a famous Roman general) to publish 21 essays defending the
treaty in The Argus , a prominent
New York newspaper. Not satisfied with his efforts, Hamilton at the same
time began writing columns under the name "Philo Camillus" praising the
arguments of Camillus. In other words, he was using the freedom
afforded by one pseudonym to endorse points he was making under a
For his part, Jefferson also wrote anonymous
newspaper commentaries favoring his stance on issues. In addition he
planted rumors in the press and asked others to do his journalistic
dirty work. He once dashed off an angry letter to James Madison, urging
his friend to "take up your pen" and cut Hamilton "to pieces" in the
newspapers. While serving as secretary of state, Jefferson also hired
Phillip Freneau, a renowned poet and essayist, to write articles
criticizing policies of the Washington administration. One of
Washington's allies warned the president that Jefferson was a "hypocrite
and is deceiving you."
An even more brazen effort to manipulate
the media occurred during the administration of President John Tyler. In
1842 Secretary of State Daniel Webster entered into protracted
negotiations with Lord Ashburton of Great Britain to settle a
long-simmering dispute between the two countries over the boundary
between Maine and Canada. Ever since the end of the Revolution, the two
nations had squabbled over some 12,000 square miles of disputed
Worried that people in Maine might oppose his
diplomatic efforts to find a compromise boundary line, the American
secretary of state met with Francis Smith, a former Maine senator and
prominent newspaper publisher. Smith offered his services to influence
public opinion in Maine by adjusting the "tone and direction" of the
newspapers to ensure that they endorsed Webster's negotiated settlement.
In exchange for such efforts, Smith asked Webster for cash.
to gain approval for his treaty and to avoid possible war with Britain,
Webster readily agreed to Smith's scheme and gained President Tyler's
approval. The president told Webster to pay Smith from an account
intended for expenses associated with foreign negotiations. Thereafter,
Smith followed through with editorials in Maine newspapers praising a
diplomatic solution to the border dispute. Webster himself wrote
unsigned editorials favoring compromise in theNational Intelligencer , the leading newspaper in Washington, D.C. On August 9, 1842, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty was signed.
Webster-Ashburton Treaty may have settled a diplomatic crisis, but the
methods the secretary of state used to ensure its passage are
symptomatic of the continuing boundary dispute between the press and the
presidency. Covert propaganda has become a widespread practice of both
parties. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations have spent hundreds
of millions on public relations firms hired to influence media coverage.
the very least, journalists need to disclose if they are paid
"consultants" for the government. There is, after all, a difference
between journalistic commentary and paid advertisements. Or at least
there should be.
Near the end of his life Thomas Jefferson
concluded that advertisements "contain the only truths to be relied on
in a newspaper." The problem, Jefferson should have added, is to know
when the advertisements end and the journalism begins.