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Bush administration blurs media boundary

Controversy over a 'journalist' adds to the buzz about message control in capital.

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First came video "news releases" produced by the Bush administration using a TV news format. Then came three conservative columnists who got big paychecks from federal agencies. Now, there's Jeff Gannon (not his real name), a journalist (maybe) who gained surprisingly easy access to the president, only to lob a sympathetically slanted question.

No evidence has surfaced that Mr. Gannon was directed by the White House, but the circumstances ignited a debate over the inner workings of the White House press room.

Presidents from George Washington on down have struggled with a news corps viewed as hostile. And in the age of television, the art of message management has been increasingly vital to the modern presidency.

But taken together, these recent controversies suggest that the Bush administration may be pushing that craft into new territory - and testing the limits of presidential public relations.

"The public has a reason to be concerned about the ways in which political manipulation is influencing journalism," says Larry Gross at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California.

Of course, the line between salesmanship and manipulation can be blurry. The White House's ability to stay "on message" has won respect even from its critics, albeit grudgingly. At the same time, other moves by the administration have raised concern.

In January came news that commentator Armstrong Williams, a syndicated broadcast host, had received a $240,000 payment from the Education Department to promote the No Child Left Behind Act. On a lesser scale, commentators Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus were paid $21,500 and $10,200, respectively, to advise the Department of Health and Human Services on its marriage initiatives. Unlike Williams, neither were paid explicitly to promote White House policy in their columns.

A 2004 video produced by the Health and Human Services Department to promote the administration's new Medicare prescription drug law ended with the tagline in journalese: "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting."

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