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Bush administration blurs media boundary

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A number of local TV stations aired this spot and others produced by federal agencies, without disclosing their source.

Last May, the General Accounting Office ruled that the prepackaged news report segment violated a law prohibiting the use of federal funds for propaganda because it did not identify the government as the source of the news report.

It is unclear whether such activities occurred with any sanction from within the White House. In the wake of the publicity about Mr. Williams, President Bush has disavowed the practice of paying journalists. "All our Cabinet secretaries must realize that we will not be paying ... commentators to advance our agenda," he said. The Federal Communications Commission is investigating the payment to Williams.

Still, the climate of the administration has been one of growing public relations initiatives. Since President Bush took office, contracts for public relations work with the federal government have jumped from $39 million to $88.2 million last year, according to a report by Democratic staff of the House Government Reform Committee. These contracts cover everything from promoting the newly revised food pyramid to funding major initiatives from schools to Social Security.

The Bush administration isn't the first to pay journalists to promote their causes. President Jefferson hired journalist James Callender to attack his rival John Adams, only to have Callender later turn on him with reports that he had fathered a child with his slave, Sally Hemings.

The classic presidential tack for managing the news is to shut off access to journalists. Deeply frustrated by the coverage of the Watergate scandal, President Nixon directed his staff to ban any representative from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time Magazine, Newsweek, CBS, and a UPI reporter from the press pool - an order his staff largely ignored. But during the 2004 campaign, a New York Times reporter assigned to cover Vice President Cheney was routinely excluded from the press plane.

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