By John Maxwell Hamilton and Kevin R. Kosar
Most Americans associate propaganda with totalitarian regimes, but in fact all governments do it to some degree. In the simplest terms, propaganda is the government’s use of public funds to conform citizens’ views to its own. The reason the term has a negative connotation is that all too often, such campaigns veer toward tendentious facts, falsehoods and emotional appeals, as well as the suppression of inconvenient information. Propaganda erodes the public’s ability to make an independent judgment, which makes it especially perilous to democracy.
Presidential propagandizing began to rear its head somewhat benignly in America during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. The president loved the attention, and he also saw the political potency of bypassing Congress and appealing directly to the public.
Roosevelt held public rallies to advocate his policies. He courted reporters by sprucing up the White House’s press room and inviting them to private palavers. He hired a press officer and began issuing press releases. Knowing the media loved a good story, Roosevelt press-agented himself by arranging photo ops of him sitting at the controls of a steam shovel at the Panama Canal and riding in a submarine. Roosevelt was not just hamming it up. He was using his position to create narratives that supported his policy goals (like having the U.S. government complete the Panama Canal and deploy submarines).
Presidential propaganda took a major troubling leap under Woodrow Wilson, who promised “pitiless publicity,” a progressive phrase calling for exposure of socio-political ills and government transparency. But when World War I came, he created our first and only ministry of propaganda, the Committee on Public Information, a body that did the opposite of provide public information.
What had been a trickle of press releases under Roosevelt turned into a gusher of tendentious handouts from the CPI offices near the White House, as well as pamphlets, books, syndicated articles, posters, advertisements, cartoons and films. University professors were enlisted. Front organizations reached labor and immigrants. The Boy Scouts and traveling salesmen, among many others, were turned into conveyer belts for government information. Like Trump’s HHS feel-good advertising campaign, the CPI was created by a president without congressional approval.
Wild-eyed muckraker George Creel was the chief of the CPI. He was so good at what he did that what we call “spin” today was called “Creeling” during the war.
Even before Wilson’s CPI came into being, Congress was not happy to have the president and executive agencies using public relations techniques to persuade the public. “This press-bureau business is a sort of political campaigning,” one legislator complained in 1913. Congress hounded Roosevelt to force his secretary of the Panama Canal Committee, a former journalist, to stop his public relations activities. It passed laws forbidding executive agencies to hire “publicity experts” or to use advertisements, telegrams and other means of mass communications to stoke public pressure on legislators to vote for or against any particular pending legislation. Legislators also added prohibitions to annual spending bills to prevent the use of funds for “propaganda and publicity purposes not authorized by Congress.”
To little avail. Those laws are still in effect, but executive agencies have routinely evaded them. Officials get around the restriction on publicity agents by giving public relations staff such titles as “health communications specialist” or they outsource the spinmeister work to private communications firms. During an effort to cut back on PR in the administration of Harry Truman, the Air Force even classified some public affairs officers as chaplains.
Federal agencies answering to the president routinely pressure Congress to pass presidential priorities — to stay within the law, they need only avoid mentioning a specific bill name or number. This happened often during the Obama administration; the Department of Labor, NASA and HHS issued communications pushing for Congress to increase the minimum wage, increase NASA funding, and enact Obamacare. On rare occasion, the Government Accountability Office will flag an agency for spending funds for illicit propaganda.
But there is no real penalty. The Department of Justice may simply disagree that there has been any wrongdoing, or the propagandizing agency may ignore GAO’s demand to repay the misspent money. No executive branch official has ever been charged with breaking these laws. And the majority in Congress tend to turn a blind eye when it is their president who does the propagandizing.
All of which explains why every administration does it. Obama had a $700 million PR blitz for his signature health care law. The George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations both produced fake video news pieces to promote their new Medicare program benefits. And so forth.
Propaganda is one of the thorniest problems of democracy. Like the plant deadly nightshade, which can heal or kill depending on how it is administered, government communications can sustain democracy or undermine it.
Whether Biden or Trump wins November’s election, the work to repair how the federal government communicates with the public needs to begin sooner rather than later. Neither party can gain any long-term advantage by having executive agencies’ communications corrupted each time a new president arrives.
A nation will struggle to collectively solve problems when trust is low. This is all the more true when it faces a pandemic, which depends on collective sacrifice. And right now, Americans are quite worried about flagging faith in government and one another.
One way to restore that faith is to rebuild trust in government information. Curbing propaganda would be a good place to start.
John Maxwell Hamilton is a global fellow with the Wilson Center, serves on the faculty of Louisiana State University, and is the author of Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda. Kevin R. Kosar is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Together, they are the authors of the research report “Government Information and Propaganda: How to Draw the Line?”