I think it’s kind of adorable that people on both sides the aisle are appalled/stunned/flabbergasted/amused/deeply deeply disappointed that FEMA decided to pull off a fake press conference regarding the California fires (officially dubbed Wildfire 2007 by the various local Action News former communication majors). But I remember a time when we were entranced by the pixiesh charms ofKaren Ryan:
It is the kind of TV news coverage every president covets.
“Thank you, Bush. Thank you, U.S.A.,” a jubilant Iraqi-American told a camera crew in Kansas City for a segment about reaction to the fall of Baghdad. A second report told of “another success” in the Bush administration’s “drive to strengthen aviation security”; the reporter called it “one of the most remarkable campaigns in aviation history.” A third segment, broadcast in January, described the administration’s determination to open markets for American farmers.
To a viewer, each report looked like any other 90-second segment on the local news. In fact, the federal government produced all three. The report from Kansas City was made by the State Department. The “reporter” covering airport safety was actually a public relations professional working under a false name for the Transportation Security Administration. The farming segment was done by the Agriculture Department’s office of communications.
Karen Ryan cringes at the phrase “covert propaganda.” These are words for dictators and spies, and yet they have attached themselves to her like a pair of handcuffs.
Not long ago, Ms. Ryan was a much sought-after “reporter” for news segments produced by the federal government. A journalist at ABC and PBS who became a public relations consultant, Ms. Ryan worked on about a dozen reports for seven federal agencies in 2003 and early 2004. Her segments for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of National Drug Control Policy were a subject of the accountability office’s recent inquiries.
The G.A.O. concluded that the two agencies “designed and executed” their segments “to be indistinguishable from news stories produced by private sector television news organizations.” A significant part of that execution, the office found, was Ms. Ryan’s expert narration, including her typical sign-off – “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting” – delivered in a tone and cadence familiar to television reporters everywhere.
Last March, when The New York Times first described her role in a segment about new prescription drug benefits for Medicare patients, reaction was harsh. In Cleveland, The Plain Dealer ran an editorial under the headline “Karen Ryan, You’re a Phony,” and she was the object of late-night jokes by Jon Stewart and received hate mail.
“I’m like the Marlboro man,” she said in a recent interview.
In fact, Ms. Ryan was a bit player who made less than $5,000 for her work on government reports. She was also playing an accepted role in a lucrative art form, the video news release. “I just don’t feel I did anything wrong,” she said. “I just did what everyone else in the industry was doing.”
Remember: Those who do not remember the history of the Bush Administration are doomed to see them repeat it.