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Thursday, March 17, 2005 10:49 am

Canned news

Armstrong Williams, who received $240,000 from the federal government to promote the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act, was employed by Sinclair Broadcast, parent of WICS-TV (Channel 20)

The Champaign-based sister station of WCFN-TV (Channel 49), which will begin airing a half-hour news broadcast in the Springfield market next month, was singled out in a New York Times story this week for advancing what some experts consider government-sponsored propaganda.

The Bush administration’s efforts to promote its agendas through media manipulation came to a head recently with the discovery that several right-wing commentators had received payments for touting federal policies. Most notably, syndicated pundit Armstrong Williams collected $240,000 from the Education Department to hype the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act.

Although Bush has since sworn off such practices, the White House this week defended its production and distribution of government-made video news releases.

A Bush spokesman confirmed on Monday that the administration would ignore recent opinions by the Government Accountability Office that deemed such news segments covert propaganda.

Several hundreds of these news segments were broadcast on local stations across the country, often without the revelation of their source. In the segments, phony reporters and rehearsed interviews with top officials are used to champion Bush policies.

“The Bush administration’s use of taxpayer-financed propaganda against U.S. citizens is a serious matter, made all the more troubling by the fact that local television stations were apparently complicit in it,” says Jamison Foser, senior adviser at Media Matters for America.

During the last three months, Champaign-based WCIA (Channel 3) aired 26 news segments made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to a front-page report in the Sunday, March 13, edition of the Times.

In the article, WCIA is characterized as an understaffed news station that uses the federal reports to beef up its programming and intentionally misleads viewers by “implying that the segments are the work of WCIA reporters.”

Jim Gee, the station’s news director, defended the use of government-made reports, saying, “We don’t think they’re propaganda. They meet our journalistic standards.”

Reached by Illinois Times, Gee, who will also serve as news director for WCFN, declined comment on the station’s reliance on prepackaged video news releases.

“As far as the article in the Times is concerned, it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie,” Gee says, adding that the station has received no complaints from viewers.

Russ Hamilton, the stations’ vice president and general manager, says that the issue “has been blown out of proportion” but adds that he may curb the airing of such reports in the future.

WCIA and WCFN are owned by Texas-based Nexstar Broadcasting Group, which has a stake in 46 television stations in nearly a dozen states.

WCFN Primetime News at Nine, a live half-hour news broadcast, will debut on April 7 and air at 9 o’clock each weeknight.

Sinclair Broadcast Group, the parent company of Springfield’s WICS (Channel 20), employed Armstrong Williams while he was being paid by the Bush administration and aired Armstrong’s four-part interview of Vice President Dick Cheney in 2003, identifying the columnist as a “News Central analyst.”


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