Sunday, May 08, 2005

Slave Servants in Saudi Arabia


May 8, 2005
Sri Lankan Maids Pay Dearly for Perilous Jobs Overseas
KEGALLA, Sri Lanka - The teacher held up an electric cake mixer and told the class of wide-eyed women before her to clean it properly. If it smells, "Mama," as the aspiring maids were instructed to call their female employers, "will be angry and she will hammer and beat you."

"This is where you go wrong," the teacher continued. "That is how Mama beats you and burns you - when you do anything wrong."

Eighteen female hands took down every word, as if inscription could ward off ill fortune. Among the women, Rangalle Lalitha Irangame was struggling to keep up, haggard after a sleepless night in the hospital. Her 4-year-old daughter was sick with fever, a worrisome turn for any mother, but a cause for panic for one about to leave for years abroad.

After a year of thinking, 35-year-old Lalitha - who prefers that name - decided to trade her life as a Sri Lankan housewife for one as a Middle Eastern housemaid. After completing their 12-day training, she and her classmates would join a mass migration of women to the Persian Gulf's petro-lubricated economies, trading the fecundity and community of Sri Lankan villages for the aridity and high-walled homes of the Arab world.

Behind those walls the women risk exploitation so extreme that it sometimes approaches "slaverylike" conditions, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report on foreign workers in Saudi Arabia. But while attention has focused on the failure of countries like Saudi Arabia to prevent or prosecute abuses, the de facto complicity of the countries that send their women abroad has largely escaped scrutiny.

For developing countries, migration has become a safety valve, easing the pressure to employ the poor and generating more than $100 billion in remittances in 2003, according to a study by Devesh Kapur, an associate professor of government at Harvard.

More than a million Sri Lankans - roughly 1 in every 19 citizens - now work abroad, and nearly 600,000 are housemaids, according to government estimates. Migrant workers have become Sri Lanka's largest and most consistent earner of foreign exchange, out-doing all major agricultural crops.

In Saudi Arabia, the most common destination, they call Sri Lanka "the country of housemaids." In Sri Lanka they call the maids heroines.

Sri Lanka's government has become an assiduous marketer of its own people. With training programs like Lalitha's, it is helping to prepare what is by now a second generation of housemaids. It even provides a safe haven to shelter, hide and rehabilitate those women who return with broken bodies, lost minds or incipient children.

But it does little to publicize those abuses, protest against them or protect the women for fear of jeopardizing the hundreds of millions of dollars they send home each year.

The women's remittances have built homes, provided capital for businesses, and given the women themselves an enduring confidence. But those gains have come with incalculable hardships.

The women often leave indebted, work virtually indentured and have almost no legal redress against the sexual harassment, confinement or physical abuse they often suffer in the countries they adopt. With no absentee voting rights, they also have no political voice back home.

By one estimate, 15 to 20 percent of the 100,000 Sri Lankan women who leave each year for the gulf return prematurely, face abuse or nonpayment of salary, or get drawn into illicit people trafficking schemes or prostitution.

Many housemaids who run away from their employers are kept in limbo at Sri Lanka's embassies because no one wants to pay their way home. Last year, after their plight was publicized, the government airlifted home 529 maids who had been living for months, packed as tightly as in a slavehold, in the basement of the embassy in Kuwait.

Hundreds of housemaids have become pregnant, often after rapes, producing children who, until Sri Lanka's Constitution was recently amended, were stateless because their fathers were foreigners. More than 100 women come home dead each year, with most deaths labeled "natural" by the host governments, although Sri Lankan officials concede they are powerless to investigate.

Back home, the exodus has reconfigured family life. Women dispense maternal love through letters, cash and cassettes sent home. Divorce, children leaving school, husbands turning to alcohol, and child sexual abuse have become routine byproducts of the women's absence.

There are less tangible tolls as well. "That time will never come back," Roshan Prageeth Kumarasinghe, an 18-year-old neighbor of Lalitha's, said, choking back tears, of his mother's decade-long absence.

Ready to Sacrifice All

In Lalitha's class, nine of the women were mothers, all 40 and under, all prepared to give up everything for their children's future, including, for 2, 4 or 10 years, the company of the children themselves.

By the end of their 12-day course, they would learn how to dismantle a vacuum cleaner and say "toilet cleaner" in Arabic. They would learn, too, not to take the gold chain their employers would leave out as temptation. They would even be taught that in the Muslim countries they were destined for, they should conceal that they were Buddhist or Hindu.

Technically, they were women, all above 18. But in their shy smiles and the innocence of having come of age in a conservative culture, they were girls. Almost all of them, like Lalitha, had at least a 10th grade education, reflective of Sri Lanka's high literacy rates, but that had done nothing to improve their employment prospects.

Two of the girls had failed marriages, and saw going abroad as their only hope for supporting themselves and their children on their own. Three were hoping to secure a better marital match by earning a dowry larger than destitute parents could provide.

Four were newly married, hoping to escape from relatives' homes into their own. Three were the second generation of housemaids in their families - one even planned to take over her aging mother's job.

All were poor. In this hill country district, the poverty rate is 32 percent. Most men find only irregular work tapping rubber, earning at best $50 a month. Their only hope for climbing up, or avoiding slipping further down, is their wives.

The husband of one of Lalitha's classmates drove a rented motorized rickshaw, earning just enough to feed the family. Their house was literally sliding away, with no money to build a retaining wall or repay a bank loan that was well overdue.

His wife, S. M. R. Deepa Ranjanie, a bright-eyed 25-year-old poet, was determined to solve the family's financial crisis, but in leaving she also saw an escape. She had married at 16, had two sons, 9 and 4, then had seen the marriage sour. She was desperate to flee an abusive home.

Lalitha's husband, K. Weeratunghe, 41, worked when he could tapping rubber or felling trees. On some days the family had no money for milk. Their house was so meager that, to improve it, Lalitha decided to leave him behind - along with her daughter, Hiroshika Mihirani, 4, and son, Manoj Sandervan, 8.

With no electricity, the home had a perpetual gloom. The walls were cracking, the windows glassless. In class, the women pored over pictures of the gulf's glossy kitchens, but at home Lalitha cooked on a wood stove in a room made of palm fronds.

The training she and the others attended had in fact been started in part because rustic village women's unfamiliarity with electric appliances and Arabic was exposing them to the wrath of frustrated employers.

The course was conducted by the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, a public corporation established by an act of Parliament in 1985 to both promote migration and protect migrants, two sometimes contradictory missions. It runs 22 training centers, including the one in Kegalla.

The traffic at the center was incessant. Mothers brought their daughters. Husbands brought their wives. Brothers brought sisters who had been left by their husbands. One woman came in to register with an 18-month-old baby still sucking at her breast, although she was too thin to give milk.

Many women had been recruited by a network of private agents, not always reputable, who trolled rural villages and town bus stands looking for new prospects. The agents earned commissions for each woman from both the foreign employment bureau and partner agents in the Middle East.

Lalitha's course Lalitha aimed to create competent maids, but also docile ones, who would serve out two-year contracts promising about $120 a month even if the pay almost never came. A maid's greatest asset, teachers taught, was "tolerance."

The reason for that message, analysts and officials say, is the competition from other poor nations, notably the Philippines, which together send hundreds of thousands of women abroad each year. Too many demands for housemaids' rights, the government fears, will simply prompt the gulf countries to seek housemaids elsewhere.

When it came to the prospect of abuse or sexual harassment, the teacher gave almost no allowance for the possibility that even good housemaids might be victimized, no acknowledgment that even a smelly cake mixer did not justify a beating.

The teacher, Kaluarachchi Chandra Malini, a 38-year-old former housemaid with erect posture and a brisk manner, taught the women how to turn on hot and cold water taps, how to run electrical appliances, how to navigate household hazards - the cleanser that could poison a child or the Clorox that could blind a maid.

More than that, she tried to prepare the women for the risks leaving their families entailed. Given the high incidence of fathers raping daughters with wives away, the housemaids were told not to entrust older girls to their fathers. An older lady was better, or even a home for girls.

Because Sri Lanka's divorce rate has climbed with the migration, the women should take the addresses of trustworthy neighbors to whom they could write asking whether husbands had fallen into drugs, drink or other women's arms. The trainees were warned not to send money to their husbands, lest they drink it away.

These pitfalls were already known to some of the women. One student, Disna, had as a girl seen her father drink away the money her mother had sent from abroad.

And Deepa's neighbor had just returned from Kuwait to find that while she had faithfully been sending money to her husband, he had not been faithful to her. Deepa, however, had studiously avoided going down the hill to learn this fact at first hand.

Silence About the Abuse

There seemed to be a national pact under way: with rare exceptions, the returning women did not reveal the worst of their experience, and the departing women did not ask. Sexual harassment and especially abuse were considered too shameful to discuss with husbands, relatives or neighbors.

But while the class steered from the worst, it was often literally in the room next door. One day a girl of delicate beauty, 21-year-old Niroshamie, came into the office, black tendrils curling around her face, X-rays in her hand.

The young scion of the Kuwait house where she worked had repeatedly tried to molest her, finally pushing her to the ground and breaking her wrist. She had to pay for the cast, work with it on for two months, then finance her own way home. She had returned to Sri Lanka with a wrist needing surgery and not a cent more than when she had left.

But the most gruesome cases were kept out of sight, quickly ushered from the airport upon arrival to the Sahana Piyasa, literally the Place of Relief, a shelter run by the foreign employment bureau.

The shelter gets two to three severe abuse cases a week, according to the officials who run it, and often many more. Some women are so badly injured they are carried off the plane on stretchers, or swathed entirely in bandages. Most cases never make the news, and they stay at the shelter until they heal enough not to shock waiting families.

Karunasena Hettiarachchi, who until recently was the chairman of the foreign employment bureau, said the government did what it could to protect women, but the very nature of the job made it difficult. In a house, as opposed to a factory, "there are no rules," he said. Sri Lanka's embassies had no power to investigate what went on behind private walls.

Agents, too, looked the other way, in part because no one wanted to cover the costs of a maid who did not serve out her contract.

Thangarasa Jeyanthi, 20 and emaciated, had arrived at the shelter from Lebanon one morning. She had a face as purple and puffy as a plum, eyes swollen shut, burn marks on her body and dried blood still around her ears.

The husband and wife she worked for had assaulted her daily, she said, speaking in the high, anguished voice of a little girl who cannot understand what she has done wrong. They had cut her with a knife, kicked and stomped on her, tied her hands with rope and denied her food.

Her employer's mother had rescued her, taking her to the police. They secured five months back salary for her, and took her to the airport, where strangers moved by her appearance collected $232 for her.

"I never expected to be returned to Sri Lanka," she said. "I always thought only my dead body would come back."

The abused women struggled to reconcile the message of their training - that good behavior would make for a good experience - with the reality of their employment.

"I did all of my housework properly," said Sudarma Manilariatne, 27, who arrived at Sahana Piyasa in January with swollen, bandaged legs, a gash on her forehead and a fractured hand. "I do not understand why they did this."

She had been beaten by her female employer, and was helped to escape the house by the employer's 16-year-old son, after receiving not a cent of salary. She wore a head scarf, which the shelter staff urged her to remove. The young woman refused and began to cry. For Sri Lankan women, long hair is a source of pride, its absence, a source of shame. Ms. Manilariatne's employer - her "mama" - had cut boy-short the hair that the maid's own mother had helped her take care of as a girl.

Fearful and Already in Debt

The training course was coming to an end. Ms. Malini, the teacher, was worried about Lalitha. She struggled with leaving her children for 12 days, Ms. Malini said. How could she go abroad? Lalitha, visibly upset over her sick child, physically ill herself on some days, insisted that little by little she was mentally preparing.

In class, the girls stared intently at photographs of airplane interiors while Ms. Malini provided last-minute tips. Do not wear black when you meet your employer lest you look too dark. Do not be frightened when you see only the eyes of the Saudi Arabian woman who meets you at the airport. Wear long sleeves and a wedding ring, even if unmarried.

Deepa's 9-year-old was crying in the mornings, knowing she was leaving. "We have to build a beautiful house," she told him, although the family's debts meant a new house was years away.

With the foreign employment bureau's registration fees to pay and new clothes to buy, she and the other women were borrowing money from anyone they could. Deepa had given the family's only valuable possessions as collateral. Her children would be without both their mother and the television they so loved, she said ruefully.

Deepa had failed the strict medical exam Saudi Arabia required of housemaids, and would go to the United Arab Emirates. Her fallibility was a leaky heart valve. She had had surgery once, and needed it again, but she was afraid even to take her medicine with her, lest her employers discover she was unwell.

To both save and escape her home, she would gamble with her life. "I was happier in the class," she said.

Dukkha, or suffering, is a word that colors the women's conversations and shadows their lives. When Lalitha went for the medical test every housemaid must pass before departing, her illness during class was explained: she was pregnant.

She faced a choice between a child she wanted and debts she could not pay. She did not believe in abortion, she said, but hers was a life with no room for error. She paid $27 to terminate the pregnancy, adding to the family debt and her own sadness.

Now Lalitha's agent seemed to be swindling her. He had promised a ticket, then not delivered it, then brought a visa that turned out to be fake.

As wrenching as it was to leave her children, shame was prodding her toward Saudi Arabia. She and her husband borrowed $398 from fellow villagers. The first repayment date had come and gone, and the lenders wanted her gone, too, and earning money.

She wanted to earn money, too, not least to keep paying for private classes for her 8-year-old son. "He is clever," she said of the boy. "I want him to climb up."

Lalitha had already taught her 4-year-old the alphabet, she said proudly. Her husband, who had finished only the eighth grade, noted that his wife was more educated than he.

Only her 8-year-old seemed to recognize the implications of his mother's departure. "Who will teach me when you go?" he asked.

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5% Tax, Not Bad For Drug Companies!!!

May 8, 2005
Drug Makers Reap Benefits of Tax Break
A new tax break for corporations is allowing the biggest American drug makers to return as much as $75 billion in profits from international havens to the United States while paying a fraction of the normal tax rate.

The break is part of the American Jobs Creation Act, signed into law by President Bush in October, which allows companies a one-year window to return foreign profits to the United States at a 5.25 percent tax rate, compared with the standard 35 percent rate.

Any company with profits in other countries can take advantage of the law, but drug makers have been the biggest beneficiaries because they can move profits overseas relatively easily, independent analysts say.

The money the companies are bringing home has come from many years of using legal loopholes in the tax law to aggressively shelter their profits from United States taxes, tax lawyers say. While the companies' tax returns are private, fragmentary information about their tax payments is buried inside their annual financial statements.

Those figures show that the drug makers have told the Internal Revenue Service for years that their profits come mainly from international sales, even though the prices of medicines are far higher in the United States and almost 60 percent of their sales take place in America.

Representatives of most of the big drug companies declined to com-ment beyond their annual reports, but in a statement Eli Lilly noted that several factors depressed its United States profits. Pfizer said it was following the intent of the law.

Though the companies stand behind their accounting, financial analysts and tax lawyers say that the drug makers' claim defies reality and that their profits come mostly from sales in the United States. But the I.R.S. lacks the resources to challenge the companies effectively, the analysts and lawyers say. As a result, the six major companies - Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Wyeth and Lilly - collectively pay a federal tax rate of less than 15 percent on their worldwide profits, with some companies paying much less.

Already, four of the six drug makers have collectively announced plans to return $56 billion in profits to the United States. Two others say they are still considering but could repatriate an additional $18 billion. Had the six companies faced standard federal taxes on those profits, they would have paid $26 billion to the United States. Instead, they will pay less than $4 billion. Chris Senyek, an accounting analyst at Bear Stearns, said drug companies would probably make up about half of all the money repatriated by publicly traded companies.

During this window, returning money to the United States is to the advantage of the companies because they can spend the cash here rather than having to use it overseas as tax laws generally require. Lawmakers have said their main intention for the law was to encourage American companies to build new operations and hire workers. Congress passed the law in response to pressure from the European Union to resolve a long-running trade dispute.

Although the act is intended to create jobs, Pfizer said last month that it would cut its annual costs by $4 billion over the next three years. Pfizer, which will repatriate at least $28 billion under the act, did not say how many jobs it planned to eliminate, but analysts expect the company to shrink its work force by thousands of people. Mr. Senyek said the law would create an insignificant number of jobs because companies can easily work around provisions in the law meant to stop them from using the money for dividends to shareholders rather than new hiring.

After the break expires, companies will probably go back to stockpiling profits overseas as they wait for another tax holiday in a few years, tax lawyers say.

The major drug makers use a variety of complex but legal tactics to move profits from the United States to low-tax countries like Ireland and Singapore where they have large manufacturing operations, said H. David Rosenbloom, director for the international tax program at New York University Law School.

"The law is complicated, but what's going on is perhaps less complicated," he said. "They're doing everything they can to maximize their profit in Ireland and minimize the profit in the countries where the sales occur."

The government can challenge the way the companies allocate their profits internally. But the companies have usually been able to defeat the I.R.S., Mr. Rosenbloom said.

"There's a limit to what they can do, because these cases are huge. They're very expensive," Mr. Rosenbloom said of the I.R.S.

The companies declined to discuss the specific strategies they use to minimize taxes. But the result of their efforts can be seen in a remarkable set of figures inside their annual financial reports.

Pfizer, the world's largest drug company, said that in 2004 it had only $4.4 billion in pretax profits in the United States, compared with $9.6 billion internationally, though most of its sales came in the United States. The company says that its profit margins on international sales were almost three times as high as on American sales.

Other companies reported similar trends. The biggest imbalance occurred at Eli Lilly, which reported that it had about $200 million in profits from United States sales in 2004, compared with $2.8 billion in profits from sales everywhere else.

Because they report relatively low United States profits, the companies pay little in American taxes compared to their profits. Pfizer reported paying only $1.2 billion in state and federal income taxes in 2004, 9 percent of its worldwide pretax profit. Excluding a one-time payment related to its plans to repatriate money it has sheltered overseas, Lilly reported paying just $37 million in state and federal taxes last year, only 1 percent of its worldwide pretax profit.

In its statement, Lilly said product liability suits, one-time charges related to business restructurings, increased pension expenses and research and development costs all cut into profits here, the company said.

"The intent of this legislation is to encourage companies to invest income earned outside the U.S. in their U.S. operations," Pfizer said in a statement. "That is what Pfizer and more than 300 other U.S.-based companies are doing."

Collectively, the six drug makers paid about $6 billion in federal and state taxes, a fraction of their pretax worldwide profits of $43 billion. Johnson & Johnson accounted for about half the American taxes paid. It garners more than half of its sales from consumer products and medical devices, whose profits are harder to transfer overseas.

The companies' assertions that they are more profitable overseas than in the United States is hard to believe, said Dr. Alan Sager, director of the health reform program at the Boston University School of Health.

Prescription drug prices are far higher in the United States than in other industrialized countries, where prices are generally government-controlled.

In one typical example, a three-month supply of 40-milligram tablets Lipitor, a cholesterol-lowering medicine from Pfizer, costs $305 at, the Internet site for the largest United States pharmacy. An Internet pharmacy in Canada lists the same medicine for $174.

"I'm really at a loss to find a reasonable explanation for the phenomenon, a real-world explanation," Dr. Sager said. Outside the United States, "there just doesn't seem to be any place on earth for the high profits to be generated, which leaves us with the extraterrestrial options."

Wall Street analysts who follow the pharmaceutical industry also say most of the drug makers' profits come from the United States.

David Moskowitz, an analyst at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey, estimated that at least 60 percent of the drug industry's worldwide profits come from the United States. Higher American drug prices more than make up for higher marketing costs here, he said. Other analysts estimate that as much as 75 percent of the industry's worldwide profits are generated in the United States.

But companies can hide those profits from the I.R.S. by moving their drug manufacturing overseas, said Martin A. Sullivan, contributing editor of Tax Notes, a nonprofit journal that examines tax issues. Companies transfer drug patents to their own foreign subsidiaries, he said.

The subsidiary then helps pay for research on the drug. If the medicine is approved for sale in the United States, the subsidiary manufactures the drug for a few cents a pill.

The pills are then shipped to the United States, where they are sold to a pharmacy or a wholesale company for several dollars each. But the parent company claims that almost all the profit should go to the subsidiary, not to the parent in the United States.

"Then the name of the game is to have that foreign subsidiary pay as little as possible back to the United States for the rights to all that income," Mr. Sullivan said.

The law will encourage drug makers to become even more aggressive about shifting American profits overseas because the companies will assume that they can lobby Congress for another tax holiday in a few years, said Sheldon Cohen, senior counsel at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

"I've always been against tax holidays or amnesties on the basis that if we do this, it tells companies or individuals that we'll do it again," Mr. Cohen said.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Frank Rich on the Wimps of Journalism

May 8, 2005
Laura Bush's Mission Accomplished
AS we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Drudge Report and the second anniversary of the Jayson Blair scandal, American journalists are in a race with the runaway bride for public enemy No. 1. Newspaper circulation is on the skids, the big three network anchor thrones are as precarious as King Lear's, bloggers are on the rampage, and the government is embracing fake reporters and threatening to jail real ones. A Pew Research Center poll shows that Americans now trust the press less than every other major institution, from government to medicine to banks. We can only be grateful that the matchups didn't include pornographers or Major League Baseball.

Then - just when you think things couldn't get any worse - along comes the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner.

This is the black-tie Washington Hilton fete at which journalists mingle with sources and celebrities and play host to the president, who is then required to be "funny." This year's outing is already famous for a startling innovation: a first lady delivered a shaggy horse gag about masturbation for the first time in our history. (In public, anyway.) Watching the proceedings from the safe distance provided by C-Span, I was as impressed as everyone else by Laura Bush's slick performance. If the Friars can't book Susie Essman or Sarah Silverman for the dais of their next roast, Mrs. Bush would kill.

It's the press's performance that is discomforting. Once these dinners were just typical Washington rubber-chicken fare, unseen on television and unnoticed beyond the Beltway. That began to change in 1987 when Michael Kelly, then a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, invited as a guest Fawn Hall, the glamorous mystery woman in the Iran-contra scandal. Over the years, Kelly's amusing prank has metastasized into a pageant of obsequiousness and TV Land glitz, typified by this year's roster of A-list stars from the 1970's (Goldie Hawn, Mary Tyler Moore) and C-list publicity hounds from the present (Jon Cryer, Ron Silver, the axed "American Idol" contestant Constantine Maroulis). As this gaggle arrives via red carpet, it's hard to know which is worse: watching reporters suck up to politicians in power or watching them clamor to rub shoulders with Joe Pantoliano.

Jonathan Klein, the new boss at CNN and a dinner attendee, hit the right note when, in an April speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, he made the "modest proposal" that the gala be canceled and that the White House Correspondents' Association "instead spend that time and energy creating standards - and enforcing them - for those who would call themselves White House correspondents." He meant Jeff Gannon, who masqueraded as a reporter at White House news briefings for two years before it was discovered that his news organization was a front for G.O.P. activists and that his most impressive portfolio had been as a model in ads for an escort service. But there's a bigger issue here than Mr. Gannon. The Washington press corps' eagerness to facilitate and serve as dress extras in what amounts to an administration promotional video can now be seen as a metaphor for just how much the legitimate press has been co-opted by all manner of fakery in the Bush years.

Yes, Mrs. Bush was funny, but the mere sight of her "interrupting" her husband in an obviously scripted routine prompted a ballroom full of reporters to leap to their feet and erupt in a roar of sycophancy like partisan hacks at a political convention. The same throng's morning-after rave reviews acknowledged that the entire exercise was at some level P.R. but nonetheless bought into the artifice. We were seeing the real Laura Bush, we kept being told. Maybe. While some acknowledged that her script was written by a speechwriter (the genuinely gifted Landon Parvin), very few noted that the routine's most humanizing populist riff, Mrs. Bush's proclaimed affection for the hit TV show "Desperate Housewives," was fiction; her press secretary told The New York Times's Elisabeth Bumiller that the first lady had yet to watch it.

Mrs. Bush's act was a harmless piece of burlesque, but it paid political dividends, upstaging the ho-hum presidential news conference of two days earlier in which few of the same reporters successfully challenged administration spin on Social Security and other matters. (One notable exception: David Gregory of NBC News, whose sharply focused follow-ups pushed Mr. Bush off script and got him to disown some of the faith-based demagoguery of the Family Research Council.) Watching the Washington press not only swoon en masse for Mrs. Bush's show but also sponsor and promote it inevitably recalls its unwitting collaboration in other, far more consequential Bush pageants. From the White House's faux "town hall meetings" to the hiring of Armstrong Williams to shill for its policies in journalistic forums, this administration has been a master of erecting propagandistic virtual realities that the news media have often been either tardy or ineffectual at unmasking.

It was only too fitting that Mrs. Bush's performance occurred on the eve of the second anniversary of the most elaborate production of them all: the "Top Gun" landing by the president on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. The Washington reviews of her husband at the time were reminiscent of hers last weekend. "This president has learned how to move in a way that just conveys a great sense of authority and command," David Broder raved on "Meet the Press." Robert Novak chimed in: "He looks good in a jumpsuit." It would be quite a while before these guys stopped cheering the Jerry Bruckheimer theatrics and started noticing the essential fiction of the scene: the mission in Iraq hadn't been accomplished, and major combat operations were far from over.

"We create our own reality" is how a Bush official put it to Ron Suskind in an article in The Times Magazine during the presidential campaign. That they can get away with it shows the keenness of their cultural antennas. Infotainment has reached a new level of ubiquity in an era in which "reality" television and reality have become so blurred that it's hard to know if ABC News's special investigating "American Idol" last week was real journalism about a fake show or fake journalism about a real show or whether anyone knows the difference - or cares. This is business as usual in a culture in which the Michael Jackson trial is re-enacted daily on cable and the most powerful television news franchises, the morning triumvirate of "Today" and its competitors, now routinely present promotional segments about their respective networks' prime-time hits as if they were news.

No wonder many local TV news operations thought nothing of broadcasting government video news releases in which fake correspondents recruited from P.R. firms pushed administration policies; in some cases, neither the stations' managers nor journalists even figured out these reports were frauds. Now that public broadcasting is being turned over to Republican apparatchiks, such subterfuge could creep into the one broadcast news organization that, whatever its other failings, was thought to be immune to government or commercial interference.

The more the press blurs these lines on its own, the more openings government propagandists have to erect their Potemkin villages with impunity. "Our once noble calling," wrote Philip Meyer in The Columbia Journalism Review last fall, "is increasingly difficult to distinguish from things that look like journalism but are primarily advertising, press agentry or entertainment." You know we're in trouble when Jeff Gannon, asked about his murky past on Bill Maher's show on April 29, moralistically joked that "usually the way it works is people become reporters before they prostitute themselves." No less chastening was the experience of watching Matt Drudge, in conversation with Brian Lamb the same day, sternly criticize Fox for cutting off the final moments of the Bush news conference for Paris Hilton's reality series. When Mr. Drudge is a more sober spokesman for the sanctity of news than his fellow revelers at the correspondents' dinner, pigs just may start to fly.

Much as we all delight in the latest horse-milking joke, the happiest news in comedy last week was the announcement that "The Daily Show" will be spinning off a new half-hour on Comedy Central starring its "senior White House correspondent," Stephen Colbert. Make no mistake about it: the ratings rise of Jon Stewart's fake news has been in direct relation to the show's prowess at blowing the whistle on propaganda when the legitimate press fails to do so. The correspondents' dinner, itself a "Daily Show" target last week, could not have been a more graphic illustration of why, at a time when trust in real news is plummeting, there's a bull market for fake news that can really be trusted to know what is fake.

Speaking of Comedy Central and journalistic bloopers: Contrary to what I wrote here a week ago, the cable network did not bleep out the 162 repetitions of a four-letter expletive in an episode of "South Park," God bless 'em.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company