This summer the Wisconsin-based staff of the Center for Media and Democracy had the pleasure of working with Molly Riordan, an Ithaca College student, who came out to Madison to be our intern. A smart and politically engaged student, Riordan quickly took to our work, adding and editing numerous articles on SourceWatch, our collaborative online encyclopedia of the people, issues and groups shaping public opinion and public policy.
I suggested that she write an article on something of interest to her. What resulted was the cover story for the third quarter issue (now available online) of our award-winning quarterly publication PR Watch. In her article "Academic Freedom Takes a Step to the Right," Riordan takes a look at Students for Academic Freedom, a conservative organization with over a hundred campus chapters that claims to promote "academic diversity." Closer examination of SAF reveals its close affiliation with "Marxist-turned-conservative activist" David Horowitz and a pattern of only identifying cases involving conservative students resisting alleged "leftist indoctrination."
"Some Republicans are pushing a measure through the House of Representatives meant to ensure that students hear 'dissenting viewpoints' in class and are protected from retaliation because of their politics or religion. Colleges say the measure isn't needed, but with Congress providing billions of dollars to higher education, they are worried," writes the Wall Street Journal.
"The Bush administration violated the law by buying favorable news coverage of President Bush's education policies, by making payments to the conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and by hiring a public relations company to analyze media perceptions of the Republican Party," ruled the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. The GAO report, "the first definitive ruling on the legality of the activities," found that the Department of Education contract with the Ketchum PR firm violated the ban on "covert propaganda." Objectionable activities include a video news release where PR flack Karen Ryan says the Bush tutoring program "gets an A-plus"; news monitoring to determine whether stories agree that "the Bush administration / the G.O.P. is committed to education"; and Armstrong Williams' newspaper columns and television spots praising the No Child Left Behind Act, without disclosing that he was paid by the Education Department. The GAO doesn't have enforcement powers, but reports to the White House and Congress.
An "angry op-ed" in the Dallas Morning News claimed the city's school system was "limiting the future and opportunities for our children" by not enacting policies mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind law more quickly.
There's an old PR trick that if bad news can't be suppressed, its release should be stalled until late on a Friday afternoon or just before a holiday break. It's a trick that served the U.S. Department of Education well when, late on Friday April 15, it released its Office of Inspector General's damning final report into the $240,000 Armstrong Williams contract to promote the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation.
The strategy behind the late Friday afternoon news dump is simple: most media outlets will be squeezed for space to cover a late-breaking story, looming deadlines will ensure harried journalists don't have time to get much further than the executive summary, and by the time Monday rolls around, it will be seen as stale news by editors with the attention span of a gnat.
Reading the 20-page report, which was prompted by Greg Toppo's exposé on the Williams contract in USA Today, it's easy to see why the Education Department wanted to bury it. The report chronicles the deception, bungling and mismanagement behind the Williams contract.