Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Most Underrated Outrage of the Last Eight Years

I can never stop being a waitress. I did the job off and on for perhaps ten years. But at one point it seeped into my skin and became part of who I am. So I'm forever condemned to having to fight the urge to bus unbussed tables in restaurants, to run over to the soda fountain to refill my own glass, and to call strangers "hon." (Okay, maybe not that last one.)

Similarly, I can never stop being a journalist. Though my reporter gigs were in the bottom rungs of the business — community news — the ethos of that job seeped in. So I'm forever condemned to countering almost any bit of information I hear with, "Says who?" (a habit that will forever keep me off the guest lists of Trivial Pursuit parties) and mentally sifting through spin and fluff to find the "nut" — the main kernel of information in any report. (What do you mean by "You look good in those pants"? Are you implying something about how I look in other pants?)

Anyway, on this, the first day of a new administration, it's my inner-journalist who has something to say about the last eight years. The last administration gave us — all of us — many reasons to be outraged. But there's one I'll never forget.

On Jan. 9, 2005, it came to light that the Education Department had paid $240,000 to commentator Armstrong Williams to promote the "No Child Left Behind" program. The consequences of this action were mild compared to the deceptions of marketing the war in Iraq. But the process by which this deception was perpetrated was far more insidious.

When the vice president of the United States tells the people that Saddam Hussein has attempted to purchase nuclear materials, he is taking responsibility for the information. He's putting his byline on the report, so to speak.

But when a government contracts an independent commentator, it is purchasing the guise of independence. It is attempting to pull off a deceit that violates the public trust on a level that to-our-face lies do not. It's an attempt to supplant news with public relations. (Indeed, public relations firm Ketchum was involved in brokering the transaction.) And it's a violation whose lessons I hope we never forget — just as I will never forgot the time George H.W. Bush yakked at Japanese banquet (not because it was an outrage to my inner-journalist but because it was horrifying to my inner-waitress).

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