The Department of Education became entangled last week in an election-season public relations mess related to the work it hired a public relations firm to do.
Last year, the New York City-based Ketchum public relations firm produced a video news release promoting the No Child Left Behind Act. The video package was made to appear to be an independent news report, a somewhat common tactic of the public relations industry. A Web site run by The Columbia Journalism Review listed several TV stations that have aired the piece.
Ketchum also compiled a report for the Education Department rating journalists on how positively or negatively they have reported on President Bush’s signature education law.
The department spent nearly $700,000 on its contract with Ketchum. People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group based in Washington, discovered the video and news analysis through a Freedom of Information Act request, said Nancy Keenan, the group’s education policy director.
“What we found was interesting, to say the least,” she said. “There was substantial taxpayer dollars spent on promotional propaganda.”
On Oct. 14, Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., called for the Government Accountability Office to investigate. In May, the watchdog arm of Congress concluded that a similar video news release about Medicare, produced by Ketchum for the Department of Health and Human Services, was “covert propaganda” and illegal.
The Education Department segment tells the story of Valarie Garland, whose son was repeating the 11th grade and who is thrilled to have access to free tutoring as required for some struggling schools under the No Child Left Behind Act.
“For Valarie and many other parents ... this is a program that gets an A-plus,” says the narrator, who signs off, “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.”
While Ms. Ryan is not really a reporter, Ms. Garland is a real parent. Last year, she met with President Bush at a charter school in Washington. In a speech there in July 2003, Mr. Bush said they “shed a tear or two about the future.”
Some ethics experts expressed qualms about the government’s offering up such video packages.
“That’s dishonest on the part of the Education Department,” said Joan Deppa, an associate professor at Syracuse University who teaches media ethics.
Robyn Massey, the vice president of corporate media relations for Ketchum, said the education video was produced before the GAO report on the Medicare video.
Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said in an e-mail that video news releases “are standard PR tools” and that the video aired in September 2003. After the GAO report on the Medicare video, “we stopped using this tool,” she said.