Publicity deals and moonlighting on the air put agencies to the propaganda test.
In August, an anonymous reader of The Washington Post pointed out that Karen Czarnecki, a deputy assistant secretary at the Labor Department, has been moonlighting on Fox News and on the Public Broadcasting Service show To the Contrary without disclosure of her government position. Labeled on the PBS show as a conservative commentator, Czarnecki sometimes has strayed into matters on which viewers, had they known her official role, might have questioned whether she spoke from a professional or personal standpoint.
Labor spokesman David James defends the arrangement, noting that Czarnecki has appeared on the shows as a private citizen, out of the realm of workplace restrictions. Her activities outside the department "have been cleared by career ethics staff," he says, adding that Labor officials equate her appearances to any other job she might hold in off hours.
Critics have said the show's host, Bonnie Erbe, could have informed viewers of her guest's official role. In a response posted on the show's Web site, Erbe argued, "I did so once about five years ago [when Czarnecki joined the Labor Department] and am doing so again here. Viewer input and trust is important to us."
But PBS' ombudsman, Michael Getler, says the network should have done more to let readers know of Czarnecki's day job. "It seems to me that it is a big mistake for the program and PBS-no matter what the Labor Department says-not to make her other full-time association clear to viewers in some fashion," he concluded in an Aug. 20 column on the PBS Web site.
The entire episode has overtones of the commotion that broke out in 2004 when the Education Department landed under a microscope for paying conservative pundit Armstrong Williams to promote the No Child Left Behind Act. Also, the agency produced a prepackaged video news story about the act, which looked like an independent news piece.
Education defended both contracts. After analysis of the few, sketchily described deliverables Williams had invoiced, officials argued that he had been paid $240,000 not for his promotional efforts but for producing and airing advertisements on his show, The Right Side. Also, they said the video news releases were not propaganda because they contained only factual information.
The Government Accountability Office didn't buy either argument, concluding that Williams' on-air boosterism for Education's policies had been part of his contract. It specified that the primary contractor, global media relations firm Ketchum Inc., "shall arrange for Mr. Williams to regularly comment on NCLB."
"Because the department has no appropriation available to procure favorable commentary in violation of the publicity or propaganda prohibition, it violated the Antideficiency Act," wrote General Counsel Anthony Gamboa in a September 2005 opinion, referring to legislation that prevents agencies from spending beyond their means.
Likewise the video news release touting free remedial tutoring for students at underperforming schools-complete with a purported anchor who signed off with the line, "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan, reporting"-would have had to clearly identify its government origins to avoid the propaganda label, Gamboa concluded.
The twin GAO opinions were unambiguous in condemning the Education contracts, but the department continued to argue its case in an apparent "agree to disagree" stance. "GAO maintains that the department violated the Antideficiency Act. The department disputes this contention," wrote Deputy Secretary Raymond Simon in a May 25 letter to President Bush and congressional leaders.
Daniel Price, who co-authored an April study for the watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy, says embarrassing public relations mishaps at Education and other agencies seem to have dampened government's interest in producing news videos. The study examined whether privately funded video news releases masquerade as authentic broadcasts. Initially Price had set out to look at government-funded segments as well, but found only three. "TV stations had the fear of God put into them regarding using those releases," he says. Not a single station had picked them up.
The dispute over Czarnecki's punditry swings the spotlight to a new focus. Since government funding isn't involved, the story likely will end differently than it did in the case of Williams and Education. But the vigorous defense mounted by Labor and PBS suggests there's plenty of room for debate and, perhaps, greater disclosure.