The Best News Money Can Buy

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While Bush administration supporters were beating up on CBS like a bass drum at an inaugural parade over the 60 Minutes National Guard story, the administration was running a cottage industry in bias of a trickier sort: paying commentators to cheerlead for its policies.

When TV/radio host and columnist Armstrong Williams admitted earlier this month that the Department of Education had paid him almost a quarter of a million dollars to promote No Child Left Behind, it was just one in a series of administration pay-for-play initiatives.

Following a report that columnist Maggie Gallagher had a similar contract to push the president's “marriage initiative,” the president last week said the White House had been unaware of the payments. He pledged that his cabinet secretaries would end the practice and let his policies “stand on their own two feet.” We applaud the sentiment, although it would have rung truer had it come before widespread and proliferating exposure of the practice. We are reminded of the performance evaluation: “Works well when trapped like a rat.”

To borrow from President Reagan, the news media should “trust but verify” the president's pledge.

You'd hope politicians would learn from these events. But even after the Williams payment was disclosed two weeks ago, the chairman of the Republican National Committee was telling the faithful that they needed to advance the president's agenda by calling in to talk radio and support Bush policies via “surrogates on cable television.” An RNC spokesperson later assured us that the RNC was referring to sympathetic talking heads on cable.

That is cold comfort. When you combine those talking-head partisans on 24-hour news channels with the paid ones, the need for full disclosure is clear.

In the past year, the GAO smacked the administration twice for its illegal use of fake news stories (video news releases) to promote drug policies and health-care programs.

The president's promise of future performance aside, there remains the issue of what other pay-for-play examples have yet to surface. Legislators are pushing for tougher reporting and disclosure requirements. We agree.

If the administration is willing to pay for good press on its policies on education, prescription drugs, same-sex marriage and health care, why wouldn't it take the same tack with the war in Iraq?

News organizations should make it a priority to discover how deep this scandal goes. A government of the people and for the people shouldn't have to buy the people.

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