Former CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson said the Obama administration has been producing its own video content to promote “unfiltered” messages with taxpayer-funded staff, including hairstylists, makeup artists and wardrobe consultants.
By cutting out the news media, Attkisson said the White House has figured out how to avoid questions and accountability. She also revealed that the Department of Agriculture has more than 1,200 “media relations employees” nationwide.
“White House officials have exploited non-news media to spoon-feed unfiltered messaging, at times pure propaganda, into the public’s mouth. The Google-sponsored chat I mentioned – that came with a pre-selected audience and questions submitted in advance by the White House’s own YouTube channel – that’s the way they like it,” Attkisson, the author of Stonewalled, said during a speech at Hillsdale College. “They generate their own content, rely on surrogates to help spread partisan blogs, Twitter and Facebook, give lots of interviews to entertainment programs, digital media and feature press.”
Attkisson said the federal government has adopted many public affairs strategies used by large corporations, except the government is using public funds to “advance its propaganda.”
“One way they do it is by self-producing videos and building their very own television production facilities where the upper echelon give interviews and speeches, controlling everything from content to lighting,” she said.
According to Attkisson, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) use millions of taxpayer dollars to expand or create their own television studios. Attkisson said the FDA has a studio that can fit a live audience of 100 people and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has a studio with Hitachi high-definition cameras and LCD-based teleprompters.
“When top officials from those federal agencies appear on camera, naturally they have to look good. So your tax dollars may kick in for the cost of their hairstylists, makeup artists and wardrobe consultants,” she said. “One insider told me that the head of a federal agency even had her fashion colors analyzed at taxpayer expense.”
While the Defense Department criticizes Congress for the sequester, Attkisson said it spends public funds to run its own 24-hour channel, which features military news, interviews with top defense officials and programs such as The Grill Sergeants.
“Taxpayers are paying to produce programs such as a cooking show competition that features mess hall cooks and aides to generals battling it out over dishes like seared ahi tuna and lamb with blueberry wine sauce,” Attkisson said.
“Both the Defense Department and the Centers for Disease Control provide taxpayer-funded advisers to television and Hollywood entertainment producers to promote accuracy or propaganda, depending on your viewpoint,” she also said.
A few years ago, a well-placed insider at the U.S. Department of Agriculture told Attkisson he was surprised to learn there were more than 1,200 “media relations employees” on staff.
“Your tax dollars pay for their salaries but many times they are little more than private publicity agents for their bosses, spinning, avoiding and obfuscating as expertly as any of their corporate counterparts, and too often we let them get away with it,” she said.
Attkisson also told the audience the Obama administration has “found itself making history for its secrecy and assaults on the press.”
“There’s delay, denial, obstruction, intimidation, retaliation, bullying, surveillance and for some, the possible threat of criminal prosecution. In my view and that of other national reporters, this is proving to be the least transparent administration we’ve covered,” she said. “It’s so bad that practically every major news outlet including the CBS News, Washington Post and the New York Times signed a scathing letter to the White House in 2013 objecting to restrictions on the press that are unprecedented, that we have not dealt with before.”
Quoting the letter, Attkisson said, “As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the executive branch of government.”
Attkisson argued that the Obama administration has measured its “supposed transparency accomplishments” by the sheer number of documents published online and the amount of paper turned over to Congress.
“On Benghazi, the president says we’ve had more testimony and more paper than ever before. Nevermind all the paper they’re withholding. The ignored and denied Freedom of Information Act requests or the fact that they still refuse to answer many basic questions more than two years later. The job at getting at the truth has never been harder,” Attkisson said. “I’m still waiting for lawful responses to my FOIA requests on Benghazi, Ebola, Fast and Furious, Healthcare.gov from the FBI.”
She also addressed the difficulty of suing over the government’s lack of proper response to FOIA requests.
”DOJ provides lawyers to defend the withholding of information and they use your tax dollars for the court cases, so there’s no downside for them,” she said.