Truth Is, Bush’s Propaganda Hurts the U.S.

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When I was growing up in Mexico, we subscribed to the local Chihuahua newspaper and a Mexico City paper whose arrival around lunchtime was a much-anticipated treat -- it had a far better sports section. My exposure to U.S. news in that pre-Internet, pre-satellite-TV era was intermittent, mostly by way of the El Paso Times and Time magazine.

If my worldview had been entirely shaped by media, I would have believed that one of the two countries separated by the Rio Grande was a mess, a total basket case, and the other a prosperous democracy envied around the world. But I would have gotten it backward.

It was Mexico’s TV and newspapers, tightly controlled by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, that trumpeted the wonders of the nation’s democracy, economic progress and social cohesion. Candor seemed to seep only into those treasured sports pages.


American media, by contrast, were brimming with woe. You would have thought it was only a matter of days before the U.S. would disintegrate.

Two decades later, it’s troubling to see Washington emulating the PRI’s media strategy, and it’s especially troubling to those of us who have lived in other countries and always admired the distinctive candor of public discourse in this country.

Spin is nothing new in American politics, but the Bush administration has not contented itself with trying to influence the news. It’s in the business of producing the news itself, in the hopes of passing it off as generic, third-party reporting. This is propaganda parading as journalism, in the finest PRI (or Soviet) tradition. As the New York Times reported Sunday, at least 20 federal agencies have been peddling TV news segments to local stations across the country. Viewers have been treated to news reports of happy farmers, happy air travelers and happy beachgoers without ever knowing that these happy but fake news reports were produced by the Agriculture Department, the Transportation Security Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

This clumsy branding of George W. Bush’s vision of America to Americans will not only backfire at home, it invariably subverts efforts to brand America overseas. Public candor and transparency are supposed to be one of the American brand’s distinguishing assets. Because the administration insists on operating in its imagined version of reality, the U.S. and American credibility begin to look rather commonplace -- and unreliable -- to the world. You can imagine how many conspiracy theories are fed and validated on the streets of Cairo and Tehran when word gets out that U.S. government agencies produce their own propagandistic “news” reports.

Monday’s naming of Karen Hughes as the State Department’s global spinmeister -- the undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs -- should make matters worse. She is close to Bush and closely associated with his remarkably evasive communications strategy. This White House stays relentlessly on message, even if the facts mock its discipline. Hence there have always been enough troops in Iraq, the budget deficit is under control and will remain so even if we give ourselves another round of tax cuts, and, yes, the Social Security system is in a state of crisis that only private accounts can cure. Most damaging to the American image in the Arab world, and to global perceptions that U.S. leaders are held accountable by reality, was Bush’s insistence that prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere hadn’t stained Donald Rumsfeld’s swell performance as secretary of Defense.

It must be tempting for the leader of the sole superpower to imagine that he can define reality and impose it on the rest of world. But it’s a dangerous temptation as the United States, for all its might, depends to an alarming degree on the trust of foreigners -- increasingly the trust of a handful of Asian central banks -- who are financing the nation’s rising debt. The United States borrows $2 billion a day from overseas to maintain Americans’ lavish lifestyle -- a factoid you won’t hear about in any taxpayer-financed fake news report.


Foreign central banks buy U.S. currency, in the form of Treasury notes, the way you buy stock in a company. Trouble is, they also can sell it the way you can dump stock when you lose faith in a company. The plummeting dollar is a global vote of no confidence in Brand U.S.A. and its current management. This decline is likely to accelerate if the administration doesn’t begin to be more candid about the nation’s real problems, such as the government’s budgetary shortfalls, and take them on. Foreign investors don’t want to trust their money to a country governed by propagandists. That’s why they invested in the U.S. in the first place.