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Democrats Assail Education Department Media Study

Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) asked the Government Accountability Office Thursday to find out whether the Education Department illegally spent taxpayer funds on a study to determine how to get positive media coverage of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act and which news outlets and reporters were covering the law most favorably.

The two Senators also asked GAO to verify whether a video news release used by the Education Department violated the “legal standard described by the GAO” in a ruling earlier this year which found similar Medicare-related releases to be illegal.

While GAO is not likely to decide until Monday or later whether to investigate, a Lautenberg aide indicated that staff at the independent investigative arm of Congress “have a high degree of interest” in pursuing the matter.

Lautenberg and Kennedy allege that the Education Department broke the law when it paid the public relations firm Ketchum nearly $700,000 to help them more positively spin aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President Bush’s education agenda.

“President Bush won’t spend the money needed to fund the No Child Left Behind Act, but he seems to have no trouble using $700,000 in taxpayer dollars to make sure he and his party won’t be hurt at the ballot box over their education policies,” Lautenberg said in a statement.

Education Department officials did not respond to calls seeking comment on the matter.

Still, history may not be in the Education Department’s corner. In 1995, then-Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary came under fire from Republicans and Democrats in Congress for using taxpayer funds for a similar study that rated reporters who covered her department.

At the time, President Clinton’s press secretary, Mike McCurry, called O’Leary’s use of $43,000 of Energy Department funds “simply unacceptable” and many Republicans in Congress called for O’Leary to resign.

At issue is a federal law that prohibits the use of taxpayer funds for “publicity or propaganda purposes,” which the GAO has said includes “self-aggrandizement” by Cabinet departments or federal agencies, as well as actions undertaken with partisan political motivations.

While federal departments and agencies are allowed and sometimes required to educate the public about their programs, Lautenberg and Kennedy claim that the Education Department crossed the line between edification and propaganda.

And, they say, the blatantly slanted nature of some parts of the survey clearly violate laws against federal agencies engaging in partisan or campaign activities.

Ketchum rated articles and reporters favorable to the new law if they stated or implied that the “Bush Administration/the GOP is committed to education.”

“There is no legitimate informational or policy reason for the Department of Education to be evaluating perceptions of the Republican Party or President Bush’s strengths or weaknesses as a political candidate,” Lautenberg and Kennedy wrote.

While there appears to be only one reference to the Republican Party in the survey, Lautenberg and Kennedy allege that the Education Department also used the survey to “improve its own image and the image of its flagship program.”

In Ketchum’s reports from April to December 2003, news coverage of No Child Left Behind was rated “positive” if it mentioned via quotes or direct statements that the law “is working to close the achievement gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’” that the law “gives more resources to schools,” and that it “makes schools accountable for students’ successes,” among eight other criteria.

On the other hand, articles were rated “negative” if they implied or directly stated that the law “is not sufficiently funded,” that the “federal government/Bush Admin. is interfering” with states’ “flexibility,” and that “states are lowering their standards to avoid negative labels,” as well as nine other criteria.

Democrats have attacked Bush for failing to properly fund the law and some Republicans have criticized it as a federal intrusion into states’ rights.

In the reports, individual reporters were singled out as well. For example, Salt Lake Tribune reporter “Ronnie Lynn’s coverage is the most negative. … Lynn has written several articles on the potential of NCLB leading to a teacher shortage in Utah, particularly among foreign language teachers,” according to the April-June 2003 report.

On the other hand, Ketchum reports that Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Chris Kenning’s “coverage of NCLB is quite positive. … Kenning tends to position NCLB as a resource for parents.”

Ketchum spokeswoman Robyn Massey acknowledged that the firm’s intent was to help the Education Department “get positive messages out” about the law.

“The intention of these media analyses reports are to find out where the gaps are and to help build positive bridges” with reporters covering the Education Department, said Massey.

Documents provided to Lautenberg by the People for the American Way — though heavily redacted for unknown reasons — showed that survey was intended to help the department in “identifying those individuals and organizations that have been vocal about NCLB — both positively and negatively. We will seek to determine their position on NCLB; and if negative or neutral, we will determine what it might take to change their position; and if positive, we will look for ways to leverage their influence to achieve the campaign’s goals.”

Ketchum’s contract for media analysis with the Education Department lasted from from May 2003 to May 2004, but Ketchum still is being paid by the Education Department for “various media relations” projects, said Massey. Those projects include pitching story ideas to reporters and writing press releases, she added.

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