Media manipulation has become the sport of kings and presidents

I will say this up front: I am not, as has been suggested in the past, a paid member of any left-wing organization — unless you count the media as a whole (rimshot).

But if you’ve read any of the other columns in this publication lately, I’d challenge you to call them liberal.

But I will let you know that I have a general dislike and distrust of the current administration in Washington. That’s more of an admission than you’re going to get from a lot of people who are passing themselves off as media these days.

The line between journalism and propaganda has never been blurrier. In fact, it may not be there at all. First, we had the Bush administration paying conservative pundits/columnists Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher to publicly back its programs without disclosing it.

Later, the government produced ready-for-air television “stories” about programs such as its new prescription drug policy and distributed them to television stations, some of which ran them unedited as news stories without telling their sources. It turns out now that Gov. Schwarzenegger is doing the same thing in California.

Then came my favorite — Gannongate. A member of the White House press corps, a man given credentials and allowed to ask questions of the president and others, turned out to be a man using a fake name and working for a fake organization.

Jeff Gannon, who drew attention to himself by lobbing softball questions at Bush and press secretary Scott McClellan suggesting, among other things, that Democrats had “divorced themselves from reality,” turned out to work for Talon News, part of GOPUSA, an organization run by a Texas friend of Karl Rove.

Wait, it gets better. Upon investigation, it turns out that Jeff Gannon is really James Guckert and there are naked pictures of him on gay Web sites such as (So, Republicans can overlook “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it suits their purposes?) And his journalistic training, according to the left-leaning, consists of a $50 weekend seminar.

Yet somehow he was able to get one of the most coveted press passes in the world. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. On second thought, it can be both.

Now comes word that the president’s tour to promote Social Security reform may be using questionable tactics. Well, knock me over with a feather.

In a series of “town hall” style meetings, the president has been talking with “regular folk” to get their input and explain his plan to allow privatization of Social Security accounts.

On a slight tangent, one of the things about Social Security reform that hasn’t been said is that the motivation for privatizing accounts may have more to do with getting people invested in the stock market than any attempt to save Social Security.

If you think about it, the stock market is essentially a giant pyramid scheme. When you buy a stock, you are betting that more people will want to buy it in the future than want to buy it now. The greater the demand for a stock, especially given its inherently limited supply, the higher its price. Basic economics. Then when that demand has increased enough, you sell the stock to those that came along after you.

So, people who are already in the stock market are constantly on the lookout for people to come along behind them to fill in the bottom of the pyramid. This supply-and-demand thing works well for individual stocks and companies, but the only way for the price of all stocks to keep rising is for the demand for all stocks to keep rising. For that, you need a constant supply of new investors.

I’m sure that this is, for some reason, overly simplistic, but it’s hard to trust the motives of the rich and powerful. And they seem to be the ones pushing this the hardest. What better way to keep that demand high than to “privatize” Social Security and allow people to “invest in their future?” Well, to ensure their future, someone’s going to have to get into the pyramid below them. It’s as much about propping up the markets as it is about saving Social Security. It may kill two birds with one stone, but nobody is talking about that first bird.

Anyway, the audiences at these town hall meeting are peppered with conservative activists from organizations such as FreedomWorks, bused in for the occasion. They lob more softball questions at the president and they’re never acknowledged as being members of the organization, only “concerned citizens.”

In a recent Newsweek article, McClellan and others defended the practice, which often involves holding rehearsals of the “off-the-cuff” questions and answers the day before, with a stand-in playing the president. It helps people “say things clearer,” Newsweek was told.

This is nothing new for the administration. During a campaign stop last year in Albuquerque, anyone wanting to go inside and see Vice President Cheney speak was asked to sign a loyalty oath.

Does anyone else feel manipulated? I would, if I were buying any of this. But infuriated is more like it. The administration clearly believes that the public can be fooled and that many of its policies cannot withstand genuine debate.

The Republicans are very good at this. Most of their events are held in front of crowds of people looking freshly scrubbed and all-American. But the truth is, they might as well be wallpaper. They’re all hand-picked conservatives who agree with everything being said.

I’m not sure what I expect. But it would be nice if they told us up front that these were people with a predetermined point of view, unlike me, an unbiased observer.

OK, maybe I do have a small agenda.

Vince Dunbar is a columnist and page designer for ThisWeek.