Presidential propaganda took a major troubling leap under Woodrow Wilson, who promised “pitiless publicity,” a progressive phrase calling for exposure of socio-political ills and government transparency. But when World War I came, he created our first and only ministry of propaganda, the Committee on Public Information, a body that did the opposite of provide public information.
What had been a trickle of press releases under Roosevelt turned into a gusher of tendentious handouts from the CPI offices near the White House, as well as pamphlets, books, syndicated articles, posters, advertisements, cartoons and films. University professors were enlisted. Front organizations reached labor and immigrants. The Boy Scouts and traveling salesmen, among many others, were turned into conveyer belts for government information. Like Trump’s HHS feel-good advertising campaign, the CPI was created by a president without congressional approval.
Wild-eyed muckraker George Creel was the chief of the CPI. He was so good at what he did that what we call “spin” today was called “Creeling” during the war.
Even before Wilson’s CPI came into being, Congress was not happy to have the president and executive agencies using public relations techniques to persuade the public. “This press-bureau business is a sort of political campaigning,” one legislator complained in 1913. Congress hounded Roosevelt to force his secretary of the Panama Canal Committee, a former journalist, to stop his public relations activities. It passed laws forbidding executive agencies to hire “publicity experts” or to use advertisements, telegrams and other means of mass communications to stoke public pressure on legislators to vote for or against any particular pending legislation. Legislators also added prohibitions to annual spending bills to prevent the use of funds for “propaganda and publicity purposes not authorized by Congress.”
To little avail. Those laws are still in effect, but executive agencies have routinely evaded them. Officials get around the restriction on publicity agents by giving public relations staff such titles as “health communications specialist” or they outsource the spinmeister work to private communications firms. During an effort to cut back on PR in the administration of Harry Truman, the Air Force even classified some public affairs officers as chaplains.
Federal agencies answering to the president routinely pressure Congress to pass presidential priorities — to stay within the law, they need only avoid mentioning a specific bill name or number. This happened often during the Obama administration; the Department of Labor, NASA and HHS issued communications pushing for Congress to increase the minimum wage, increase NASA funding, and enact Obamacare. On rare occasion, the Government Accountability Office will flag an agency for spending funds for illicit propaganda.
But there is no real penalty. The Department of Justice may simply disagree that there has been any wrongdoing, or the propagandizing agency may ignore GAO’s demand to repay the misspent money. No executive branch official has ever been charged with breaking these laws. And the majority in Congress tend to turn a blind eye when it is their president who does the propagandizing.
All of which explains why every administration does it. Obama had a $700 million PR blitz for his signature health care law. The George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations both produced fake video news pieces to promote their new Medicare program benefits. And so forth.
Representative democracy depends on government communicating honestly with the public. The public can’t hold elected leaders accountable if citizens don’t know what they are doing. Citizens also have a right to know how government is spending their money, and whether it is producing bang for the buck. Accurate government information also can serve public good purposes: It is helpful to know, for example, what the unemployment rate is, whether a hurricane is approaching, and how much children are learning in school.
But self-governance is corrupted when an administration uses taxpayers’ dollars to manipulate their beliefs about its performance or reality generally. This betrays a premise of our political system: that government exists to serve the public. The current administration’s playing down of the coronavirus peril and its confusing and self-contradictory advice to the public (e.g., Trump vs. his FDA on hydroxychloroquine) are a salient and existential example.
Which is why this nation desperately needs major reform of the ways that the executive branch communicates with the public. Here are three reforms that can start to right the flow of information from government to the public.
First, Americans deserve an audit of how much the government is spending on communications with the public, and an assessment of where the dollars are going. Data from USASpending.gov indicate executive agencies will spend nearly $1.4 billion on advertising contracts with private firms. But this grossly understates actual expenditures, as it excludes the government’s in-house costs, such as the compensation earned by the legions of communications staff across the executive branch, or the costs for operating the government’s innumerable blogs and YouTube channels. The GAO has audited some individual agencies in the past, but Congress could direct it to assess all 170 federal agencies. In the course of doing that, the GAO could usefully propose a definition of “public communication” that all agencies would have to use in accounting for their spending. None presently exists.
Second, Congress should appoint a bipartisan, blue ribbon commission to consider ways to update the antiquated laws on government communications with the public. For instance, federal spending laws forbid agencies from using funds for unauthorized “publicity” or “propaganda” but fail to define these terms or even hint at differences between them and acceptable government communications. One standard, for instance, might require that communications should be balanced and written in a tone that does not extol the agency or its activities.
The law against employing publicity experts, which was enacted in response to Roosevelt’s self-promotion, is effectively useless now. And the statute forbidding agency communications with the public is anachronistic; for one thing, it forbids the use of telegrams, but not the internet. Nor do any of these laws provide for any sort of real punishment for violations. Not least, the panel should consider policies to stop agencies from spending funds to turn their spokespeople into media darlings.
This panel also could develop governmentwide guidelines for agency public communications practices, which Congress could enact into law. Right now, agencies—with some direction from the Office of Management and Budget—are free to develop their own communications policies. This hodgepodge of policies makes little sense, seeing as communications boondoggles and scandals are perennial. It would be wise to establish uniform and publicly available standards that make clear what is expected of government agencies in their communications with the public.
Congress took a run at writing guidelines in 2001, when it passed the Information Quality Act. Rather than revise the few existing policies, it instead directed agencies to adopt policies “ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated.” Regrettably, Congress simply trusted agencies to obey those vague guidelines and followed up very little to ensure compliance. This time around Congress would be wise to mandate information quality standards and require public reporting of agencies efforts to enact them.
Third, the White House news conference needs an overhaul. Done right, the process of getting ready for a daily briefing contributes to government accountability. The press secretary reaches out to executive departments to assess the issues of the day and identify the corresponding administration policy. After looking at the daily press briefing book, Clinton was known to call a Cabinet secretary to say a better policy was needed.