AUSTIN, Texas -- Calling all conservatives. Yo, libertarians. Also, wing-nuts, believers in black-helicopter conspiracies and mouth-foaming denouncers of government and all its works -- yoo-hoo. Where are these people when you need them?

THEY are making us pay to have ourselves brainwashed. All good conspiracy theories begin with "they" -- and in this case, it's the usual suspect of the right wing: the ever-evil federal government. Rush Limbaugh, get on this case. Stealth propaganda now goes by the beguiling moniker "pre-packaged news." And our government, the one supposedly run by us, is using our money to secretly brainwash us. Is this gross, or what?

No joke, this is seriously creepy: The U.S. government is in the covert propaganda business, and it's not aiming this stuff at potential terrorists, it's aiming it right square at your forehead.

The New York Times did a huge Sunday take-out on the practice of "pre-packaged news" by government agencies. "The government's news-making apparatus has produced a quiet drumbeat of broadcasts describing a vigilant and compassionate administration."

The Bush administration did not invent this practice -- it's an adaptation of a corporate public relations ploy. P.R. firms make what look like normal news segments designed to fit into regular news broadcasts, but they are actually sales pitches.

You have probably wondered, "This is news?" when you see a "report" along the lines of: "This is Joe Doaks reporting from the World Headache Remedy Expo on a terrific new advance in headache cures that has everyone here really excited. The product that has the whole Expo buzzing is Megaconglomerate's new remedy No Brain, No Pain. It completely wipes out your headache by wiping out your entire brain, so that you become so stupid you believe this segment is actual news." Or words to that effect.

We're not talking about the old public service announcements that used to hand out useful info clearly attributed to the government: "Uncle Sam wants you to stop smoking," or, "It's a good idea to get your child a polio vaccination: This message brought to you by the Health Department."

It's bad enough that corporate shills burn up journalistic credibility with this cheap trick, but the government has produced hundreds of these fake news segments. The Clinton administration started this vile practice, and the Bush administration has doubled it, spending $254 million on public relations contracts in its first term, twice what the last Clinton administration spent. I suspect it is part and parcel of Karl Rove's mania for "message control."

So how did something this sleazy become so common? Money. The Times reports: "It is ... a world where all participants benefit. Local affiliates are spared the expense of digging up original material. Public relations firms secure government contracts worth millions of dollars. The major networks, which help distribute the releases, collect fees from the government agencies that produce segments and the affiliates that show them. The administration, meanwhile, gets out an unfiltered message, delivered in the guise of traditional reporting."

The only patsy in the set-up is you, sitting there thinking you're seeing something real AND paying for the fake news with your taxes.

Of course, the television stations that play along with this deserve all the opprobrium that can be heaped on them. Thanks for corrupting journalism, guys -- thanks for burning everyone's credibility.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association code of ethics says: "Clearly disclose the origin of information, and label all material provided by outsiders." But many stations don't, even those in large city markets with strong professional reputations. More stations are going to more news shows because they're cheaper to produce -- but they are not adding reporters or editors, they're just stretching their staffs thinner and thinner. This is happening across the board in the news business. It's about money.

Meanwhile, back at government propaganda central, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has held that the government-produced "news" segments may constitute "covert propaganda." Glad somebody noticed.

But, the Times reports, just last Friday the Justice Department and the Office of Management and Budget circulated a memo telling all the executive branch agencies to ignore the GAO. The memo says the GAO failed to distinguish between covert propaganda and "purely informational" news segments.

Well, gee, I guess it's purely informational when you see a joyful Iraqi-American, in a segment on the reaction to the fall of Baghdad, saying: "Thank you, Bush. Thank you, U.S.A."

Another segment described in the Times reports "another success" in the Bush administration's "drive to strengthen aviation security." The fake reporter calls it "one of the most remarkable campaigns in aviation history." That would be informational if it weren't misinformational, instead. As the Times reported the next day in an unrelated story, the government's aviation security program is, in fact, riddled with dangerous loopholes.

If I were a hawk-eyed conservative looking for waste, fraud and abuse in government spending, I'd go after this one faster than small-town gossip.


CROW EATEN HERE: Speaking of misinformation, I managed to mess up completely myself in a recent column by throwing Claude A. Allen into a list of judges being renominated by Bush for the federal courts. Allen is not on the list of renominations. I deeply regret the error.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2005 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.