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Posted by on Jan 6, 2005 in At TMV | 0 comments

White House Paid A Commentator To Argue Its Case

No matter how you slice it, dice it, and try to finesse it , in  journalism and professional opinion-writing taking money from someone to promote their position is NOT CORRECT — it’s considered corrupt.

If it was OK then someone could write something and put a little "Thank Yew" at the end for the financial support for their ideas….but they wouldn’t. Guess why?

At issue here is the news that the White House actually PAID a commentator to pitch its education policy line. Now we are sure we will get emails and comments from people now trying to defend it (we always defend our team and our coach), but we must be extremely blunt:

When I went to Northwestern University for my masters in journalism professors WARNED US about sources trying to buy off reporters with perks and bribes. So what can you call THIS:

Seeking to build support among black families for its education reform law, the Bush administration paid a prominent black pundit $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same.

The campaign, part of an effort to promote No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required commentator Armstrong Williams to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts, and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004.

Williams said Thursday he understands that critics could find the arrangement unethical, but "I wanted to do it because it’s something I believe in."

SORRY, THAT IS SIMPLY NO EXCUSE:

If this wasn’t a "perk" or an alleged bribe…why the MONEY? More:

  1. Journalists (conservative, liberal and those who genuinely don’t belong to either party) have for decades reported and commented on issues without getting paid $240,000 (!!!!). Most people could promote a view without getting a cent. And the majority would turn down someone who offered them money to pitch a point of view.
  2. Journalists are often invited by the people they cover to press dinners, functions, etc. and that’s accepted behavior. You can mix with your sources or the people about whom you write. It happens all the time.
  3. Journalists who do movie reviews have come under fire for accepting perks but some defend that behavior.
  4. At no time at any point in my scholastic or working  journalism careers can I recall where a columnist or journalist accepting $240,000 to promote a view was considered anything less than sleazy. Anyone who does that is NOT a reporter or a commentator — but a public relations spokesman at the least — or a blatant propagandist.
  5. In this case, not only is the contract questionable and reprehensible for him to have signed, but it’s at BEST poor judgment on the White House’s part. At worst, it’s enabling and instigating questionable ethical behavior, and  using public funds to turn a commentator into a covert  propagandist. When did Williams ever come out and tell his audience that he had this contract?  Read on:

The top Democrat on the House Education Committee, Rep. George Miller of California, called the contract "a very questionable use of taxpayers’ money that is "probably illegal." He said he will ask his Republican counterpart to join him in requesting an investigation.

The contract, detailed in documents obtained by USA TODAY through a Freedom of Information Act request, also shows that the Education Department, through the Ketchum public relations firm, arranged with Williams to use contacts with America’s Black Forum, a group of black broadcast journalists, "to encourage the producers to periodically address" NCLB. He persuaded radio and TV personality Steve Harvey to invite Paige onto his show twice. Harvey’s manager, Rushion McDonald, confirmed the appearances.

Williams said he does not recall disclosing the contract to audiences on the air but told colleagues about it when urging them to promote NCLB.

NOT GOOD ENOUGH. True, he probably does believe in the program. But the people who MOST TRUSTED HIM were his audience. And he "does not recall" telling his audience about the payments. This quote hits the nail on the head:

"I respect Mr. Williams’ statement that this is something he believes in," said Bob Steele, a media ethics expert at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "But I would suggest that his commitment to that belief is best exercised through his excellent professional work rather than through contractual obligations with outsiders who are, quite clearly, trying to influence content.’

So what does the White House have to say about this?

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said he couldn’t comment because the White House is not involved in departments’ contracts.

Ketchum referred questions to the Education Department, whose spokesman, John Gibbons, said the contract followed standard government procedures. He said there are no plans to continue with "similar outreach."

"Similar outreach"= paying without telling audiences that their commentators are paid to promote a line.  And "no plans" = hey, we got too much heat over this arrangement, so we better defuse this controversy fast.

I didn’t know the Education Department enjoyed such autonomy. Of course, no one in the White House knew about an allocation of $240,000 to promote its program…

Williams, 45, a former aide to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is one of the top black conservative voices in the nation. He hosts The Right Side on TV and radio, and writes op-ed pieces for newspapers, including USA TODAY, while running a public relations firm, Graham Williams Group.

In other words: he should have known better. P-E-R-I-O-D.

NEWS UPDATE: According to the New York Times, the government distributing "new" without telling people its source is a bipartisan practice that also included the Clinton years:

But public relations executives said that the government distribution of prepared news segments without on-air disclosures of their origin was a bipartisan practice that predated the Bush administration.

"The Clinton administration was probably even more active than the Bush administration" in distributing news segments promoting its policies, said Laurence Moskowitz, chairman and chief executive of Medialink, a major producer of promotional news segments. After the Government Accountability Office decision last spring, he said, his firm began advising government clients to disclose each tape’s nature in its script.

But there are no specific examples provided yet of a columnist who was basically on administration’s payroll to shill its programs.  It’s apples and oranges — until something comes out showing another columnist and reporter who audiences ASSUMED was giving the facts or opinions on his/her own turns out to have been paid handsomely for their support. $240,000 isn’t just a tiny tip.

UPDATE: But that’s just our view…There are  other voices…such as:

Howard Kurtz:"Believed in enough to take political money and not disclose it?"

Kevin Drum:"So what’s the fuss, anyway? As I recall, that’s sort of like how the Godfather worked too. "We got newspaper guys on our payroll. They might like a story like that." It’s amazing how often the Bush administration reminds me of that movie."

Matthew Yglesias:

When I heard this on the radio this morning, I assumed I was hearing that the Republican Party had sleazily done this and that we were talking about a scandal in journalistic ethics, but now that I’ve had my coffee it’s clear that the United States government has done this with your tax dollars — a bizarre bit of corruption…Itseems like a good time to mention my frustration at liberals’ continued inability to articulate clearly to the American people just what an ethical void the contemporary Republican Party has become.

–Political Scientist James Joyner:

1. In this case, the White House was merely promoting the nearly universally agreed upon message that "drugs are bad." But if presidents can spend taxpayer money on such propaganda messages, what’s to stop them from using it to promote their own agenda on items of controversy before Congress?

2. More importantly, given that the government controls the ability of stations to operate, allowing the government to force content providers to put out public policy propaganda as part of their programs is problematic. It’s not a very slippery slope at all to the point where the government controls messages are permissible in entertainment programs.

Ezra Klein: "Oh, well that’s okay. So long as he understands I might find it unethical. So long as he hears what I’m saying. So long as my concerns are duly noted. If he does all that, then the fact that he let the Bush administration pay him money to direct his coverage doesn’t matter one whit…Williams runs his own show. If he believed in covering Rod Paige and the Dept. of Education, he didn’t need a bribe to do it. And if the best excuse he can muster is that, bribe aside, he likes Rod Paige and education, then he should be fired immediately."

Ed Cone: "I’m sure RatherBiased and Powerline will be all over this one, huh?"

(NOTE: Rather Biased.com has left a comment in our comments section noting that their mission is not to cover bias in general. Indeed, their focus has been on Dan Rather and CBS, as their name implies. Read the full comment. JG)

Suburban Guerilla:"If Williams felt as strongly as he says about the issue, why was an additional paycheck necessary to get him to address it? At least we can proudly point to a milestone in black history: White media whores are no longer the only game in town."

The Peking Duck:"Of course, the Republicans will walk away without a scratch (the journalist will have to go, I suspect; he can never be credible again). Clinton would have been flayed alive, and Rush and Sean and the gang will just laugh this off as those wacky libruls making a lot of noise over nothing."

–Former Washington Post Newsweek Interactive managing editor Kevin Featherly:

A reader has written into Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo suggesting that maybe some of the other pundits we see freely espoousing their well-rehearsed beliefs on the right and left might also be on the take.

"They sank a quarter of a million," Marshall’s reader writes, "into one not-so-prominent commentator to push a single issue–not even one where they really needed help–and they never greased anyone else? Not so credible."

Pretty hard to argue with that. Certainly the way Robert Novak has been treated with kid gloves while the government threatens to jail other reporters over the Valerie Plame scandal–a scandal entirely of Novak’s making–suggests that he has been given the kind of protected status that might be accorded a valued employee.

Bogus Gold:

They used government money for this?! Well if it’s not illegal, that’s only because no one ever thought someone would be stupid enough to pull this kind of stunt. I don’t care how partisan a Republican you are, this is outrageous on so many levels everyone ought to be able to get angry over this…

I don’t care if this is an example of ineptitude or basic corruption. As a Republican, either is sufficient for heads to roll. And they’d better.

As for Williams, maybe he can look for a nice Florida condo in Dan Rather’s neighborhood. As a pundit, his credibility just went down like the Titanic.

(NOTE: Bogus Gold has a lot more to say on this so make sure you read his entire post.)

La Shawn Barber, responding as a blogger and also as a black conservative in a MUST READ IN ITS ENTIRETY post. Here’s a key section:

Contrary to what my detractors say, I’m nobody’s partisan hack. I am a writer who happens to be conservative, and I pursue paying assignments. I don’t hide that. If I submit an article to a paying market, I expect to be paid for it. There is nothing unethical or partisan-hackish about it. I believe what I write. I stand behind what I write.

Along comes Armstrong Williams, a black conservative commentator who was given a fat check by the Bush Administration to push the No Child Left Behind law on his television show and convince other black journalists to do the same. In his column and on his show, he failed to disclose these important facts.

Reinforcing the black-conservatives-are-sellouts stereotype, Williams has just handed to liberals, on a plate made of pure gold served by a well-dressed butler in a most tastefully decorated setting, enough fodder to keep them gobbling for months to come. In the aftermath of John Kerry’s demoralizing defeat in a failed bid to lead the free world, liberals have found the scandal they’ve been searching for. Thanks, Mr. Williams.

His syndicate, Tribune Media Services has dropped his column. His show, The Right Side with Armstrong Williams, will probably be canceled, too. And he deserves all the scorn the liberal blogosphere is about to dump on him…

Contrary to what liberals think, black conservatives are not a monolith. Williams is responsible for his own actions, but the perception he leaves in his wake is detrimental to the cause so many black conservatives fight for. I take that personally.

That Colored Fella’s Weblog:

Although, Black Conservative columnist/pundit/radio talk show host Armstrong Williams has had undistinguishing career so far shilling for the Right, he now can certainly kiss off any notion of ever winning a Pulitzer! He got busted today, for accepting $214,000 from the Bush administration to use his platform to sell the Black community on the No Child Left Behind Program. Saying with some confidence, that more Blacks were disenfranchised in Ohio compared to the number who actually listen to his radio show or read his column, is a debate for another day. But, this revelation gives greater insight into the enigma that is the Black Conservative.

In spite of being a bit evasive (and contradicting) on the details, I still give Williams credit for not avoiding his detractors and the controversy. But, did you really think he was gonna pass on the most press coverage he has ever had in his career? And, don’t think for one moment that this violation of the golden rule of journalistic integrity will hinder any elevation in his status, in the Conservative Echo Chamber.

But, when Williams accepted the payoff, he knew he had nothing to lose, nothing at stake – no downside. Only a leading political thinker who is absolutely certain that his opinion is as respected and invaluable – as he is being told repeatedly – would refuse.

Williams knew better.

Michele Malkin: "It stinks…Rod Paige should be fired. Those who came up with this disgusting scheme should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Any other pundits who accepted money from the Bush administration, whether from the Education Department or any other bureaucracy, should come forward now and disclose. And then they should immediately return the money. Grow some principles, for God’s sake."

Libertarian Girl has a lot to say and here is a bit of it:

It’s a shame that a conservative black guy has to be the focus of public anger. I don’t know exactly what Williams stands for, but if he’s labeled conservative then he can’t be all bad.

I am outraged that taxpayers were footing the bill. If you read the article, you will note that at least $700,000 of public money was used to pay a public relations firm to promote legislation that right thinking Americans don’t agree with. I say this is clearly an abuse of public funds. This is the real scandal, and I hope that people in the Bush administration get fired.

Slant Point:

That’s $240K of tax-payer money. While it is a cause I support, I must question not only the ethics, but the legality of such a move by government officials.

Seriously, Williams claims to support the issue so much prior to the bribe, which begs the question why he needed the money? What was the money for – really? An elaborate reminder program that had some intern send WiFi alerts to his Blackberry in the middle of a broadcast if NCLB hadn’t been mentioned? An aggressive agent to pester Steve Harvey until Harvey put Williams on his show?

Hardly either. I’m sure the money was just a way of saying thanks. But since when does anyone, especially our government, need to thank people with dollars when they already do what they do voluntarily?

Similarly, down in citizen land, what I find pleasant is numerous bloggers on the right weighing in, essentially crying foul regardless of how high or how far this goes in the Bush administration. Bravo.

The Education Wonks (this post is written by a teacher):

I firmly believe that the Bush administration made a huge error in judgment paying "commentator" Armstrong Williams some $240,000 to promote shill the No Child Left Behind Act to the African American Community. This morning, I saw a clip on "Fox" that featured an apologetic Williams lamenting his decision to accept cash in exchange for favorable commentary.

But as a pundit, its already too late for an apology to repair his credibility. According to Fox, his column has already been dropped from some newspapers.

Putting aside for the moment the ethical debate of spending throwing away the taxpayer’s money in this fashion, making payments to anyone is an insult to all that have volunteered their time to advocate educational reform.

–A MUST READ post at Say Anything. We’re almost doing it an injustice by quoting a small part, but:

Republicans have a hard time convincing blacks in this country of their sincerity. That situation has been helped through a strong minority presence in the Bush administration (Rice, Powell, Paige, etc.) but a scandal involving a respected black voice being paid off by Republicans will be a major setback to this progress. Black Republicans are already painted as “sell outsâ€? and “Uncle Tom/Aunt Jemimaâ€? by the left. This scandal plays right into their hands. Of course, Democrats will have selectively forgotten the fact that their own candidate for President was not above paying for a little black minority support himself……

Personally, I am ashamed of the Bush administration for engaging in these sort of tactics. Yes, they’re legal, but they’re still wrong and unethical regardless of their legality. You cannot further your political agenda by tricking citizens into believing that the political commentators they’ve come to know and trust support your legislation based on its merits and not on the amount of cash they’ve been paid.

Mr. Williams now tells us that he would have supported the No Child Left Behind legislation even if he hadn’t been paid. That may well be true, but now we’ll never know.

No More Mister Nice Blog says the Times report is a kind of smoking gun because it shows Williams was paid not to boost the law but Bush’s re-election effort:

The New York Times says that "the arrangement … started in late 2003" — long after NCLB was signed into law (January 8, 2002).  the subsequent columns that mentioned NCLB and Bush education policy were all published in 2004;  the last one was a week before the election.

So your tax dollars bought political advertising, disguised as journalism.

CalTechGirl:

So in effect, he took government money to ask people to support the program based on his image and reputation as a conservative commentator. This is misrepresentation at best and fraud at worst, and most likely. His career is already in the tank. His column has been dropped already, and it looks like his TV show is on the way out as well.

But the bigger question is this: what does this mean for the Bush administration? Who knew about the payments? Who had to authorize them? Some have speculated that such a trifling amount of money in the Department of Education would only need to be approved from within and that the President may well have known nothing about it. I suspect this is true.

It makes sense now why Rod Paige was one of the first secretaries to tender his letter of resignation to the President (on 11/15, two weeks after the election). After all, Paige was one of the few members of the cabinet who presided over a department that had begun to meet the President’s policy goals. Obviously someone higher up found out what was going on, and the jig was up.

Rod Paige was the real idiot here. Besides being unethical he lost his credibility for free.  Williams actually got $$ for it…

Bull Moose:

Apparently, this was part of the small-government conservative Administration’s Leave No Pundit Behind Program…..

Who knows, the purchasing of pundits may be a government-wide policy for the Administration. Besides buying and purchasing commentators, the Bushies may also be leasing and renting them. The next time you hear an articulate right winger defending Rumsfeld, the obvious question is whether he is funded under a stealth Defense Department project. Not that there would be anything wrong with that, of course.

The Moose suggests that the Bushies form a Department of Punditry where they can purchase commentators in bulk discount. After all, they should be getting the biggest bang for our bucks!  (And the Moose is not for sale).

Middle Earth Journal:" The administration is constantly paying journalists to shill for them. Maybe not in money but in access or in the case of Robert Novak simply keeping his ass out of jail. The only reason they paid Williams is because he is black. They have plenty of big guns like FOX and Sincliar Broadcasting shilling for them and all they ask is a little special treatment by the FCC or some nice tax cuts."

Running Scared:"The sheer number of things that are wrong with this are staggering and obvious….This is the kind of story that should go beyond any partisan lines."

MUSC Tiger: "Stupid, stupid, stupid."

David Anderson:

I have little respect for some Black Conservatives, who suspend disbelief on a regular basis in supporting Conservative causes that are counter to the best interest of African Americans. I have seen Williams for example praise Strom Thurmond. And J.C. Watts support Senator Lott when he had his "racial issues." I had to scratch my head in both cases and wonder what the hell is wrong with these guys. At least in Williams case I now KNOW… It was, "All about the Benjamins," A whole lot of them…

I think we as African American Bloggers need to do more, "Calling out," of black right wingers who distort the views of the black community. I also think we need to be careful about how we do it, so as not to have our arguments pooh poohed as racism, or have the real subject of debate lost by giving fuel to the spin machine.

Kevin Aylward:"In the last paragraph of the Times story Armstrong Williams has this to say, "I have realized, you know what? I am part of this media elite club, and I have to be more responsible .Apparently given that Williams’ syndicated column was dropped as will (most likely) his TV show and appearances, was and should have been seem like more accurate terms."

Jeff Jarvis has a lot to say …and do (look below). A MUST READ but here’s a taste:

He said, "Pundits and commentators should be held to the same standards as journalists" Well, yeah. Well, duh.

But it’s too late. He screwed up and it’s all the more amazing because it would have been so easy not to. It’s all about transparency.  And it is an object lesson for bloggers….

In short, no one knows when to trust Williams…A lack of transparency yields a lack of credibility. Transparency means trust.

When I started Entertainment Weekly, a wise editor summed up all the many magazine-industry and company rules about advertising in a very simple test: Readers must never be confused about the source of something. If it has been bought, they must know it. We must never sell our editorial space or voice; ads must be clearly identified as ads.

What’s interesting about the Williams case is that he didn’t just sell space — in the form of time on his show. He sold himself. He sold his voice and his reputation.

And the DoE didn’t just buy ads, it tried to buy conversation, it tried to buy buzz. So it managed to bring into question anything positive any pundit now says about No Child Left Behind or any appearance to push the program on any show: Were they paid to say this?

Jarvis offers some warnings to bloggers who can (we believe easily) fall into the same trap. Meanwhile, Jarvis is filing requests galore to see how far back this goes and how extensive the payola is.

–Glenn Reynolds, aka, Instapundit on the lessons this teachers bloggers:

I’ve never had anybody offer me money in exchange for blog posts…but I have been offered substantial amounts of money to author opeds furthering the agenda of some people. I declined; even if it were an opinion I already held, undisclosed third-party payola just seemed wrong to me. I think the same thing’s true for blogs, which is why I think that the DaschlevThune folks should have disclosed the money they got.

But free samples aren’t the big question; it’s outright payola. There’s a lot of that out there in the Old Media (usually disguised slightly in terms of free travel or gifts, but not always) — much more than is reported on by the Old Media, or even by bloggers — but we should try to limit it in the blogosphere. But the ultimate lesson is that you’ve got to make up your own mind. Every successful system attracts parasites, as Thomas Ray once said, and the blogosphere is a successful system.

Steve Gillard has a blistering (and controversial) post on the subject that must be read in full. A small bit:

On top of Clarence Thomas begging his white patrons for money, this ought to expose the character of the negro conservative. They have no soul and no morals. They can be bought by their white overlords because they apsire to their status, but think themselves unworthy to be treated as the same. Now, I’ll freely admit both Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have used their position to gain personally. But this kind of craven greed is a feature of the negro conservative. He shuffles and bucks along for his master, losing his soul and dignity in the process.

He has no ethics to begin with, the show horse for a bunch of people who think he’s lesser than them. So why wouldn’t he use his position to enrich himself and hide his illegal arrangement with his white masters. He’s already sold his dignity and self-respect. Why not sell his reputation as well. Williams is already an embarassment to black people. This just furthers the shame he brings.

Cincinnati Black Blog:"I don’t want to see Armstrong Williams go to jail for violating the Antideficiency Act, the federal "Publicity and Propaganda" laws, or the Federal Communications Act, but I would like to see the FCC come down with strict rules either requiring full disclosure of money taken by "commentators" or "pundits" or enforce the law against taking "plugola". Right now, the law isn’t enforced."

The All Spin Zone:

Conservative or liberal, all appearance of independent thought falls by the wayside when stuff like this bubbles up from the shadows into the light of day. And it makes you ask the question: how many other "commentators" are being paid by government agencies to spin a particular message?

I have a gut feeling that Williams is just the first one outted (for whatever reason; perhaps he pissed off the wrong person). If we take a tinfoil hat view of this controversy, consider that he’s a relatively small fish in a big pond.

While a lot of blogs have commented extensively on le affaire de Armstrong in the past day or so (with progressive African American blogger Steve Gilliar leading the way and taking a lot of flack), no one seems to be asking the most important question. The outting of Williams by conservative operatives was clearly a horse head under the sheets to someone else of more significant stature.

What If: "Bad.  Not surprisingly, the Left has a chorus of criticism.  This time, I don’t blame them.  Even though this sort of thing has happened on the Left also, it doesn’t condone conservatives doing it."

Greg Piper:"But there’s a difference in my mind between fooling viewers into thinking they’re watching news reports and paying opinion commentators to help with a PR campaign. I expect better from Williams, but don’t think this approaches a scandal."

The Political Teen:"Not only does this give the Democrats a field day, but it turns other minorities away from the Republican party and brings back the Uncle Tom stereotype. One thing I am worried about is, the Bush administration might have used Armstrong just because of his race. I really hope this is not so."

Parableman has a long entry on this which needs to be read in full. A smart part of his conclusion:

Williams is now saying it was a mistake. He says he was treading in a gray area, not clearly in the right but not clearly in the wrong, which is enough for him to think that he wouldn’t do it again if he had to do it all over. That seems right to me. He should say that. What others seem to be saying, though, is way out of hand. People are treating this as if Bush personally paid him to argue in his columns for certain views that he didn’t himself agree with, which will of course fan the flames of those racists (whether black, white, or whatever) who think black people must all really be liberal and black conservatives must be Uncle Toms who are in the pocket of rich conservatives.

John Henke has an extensive look at this issue, reactions and all it entails. He asks why some liberal blogs say conservative blogs are ignoring the issue (note that our roundup has weblogs of ALL persuasions quoted condemning this development). Here are just a few of his many points:

Taking money in exchange for promotion is payola. It is not "plugola"…This isn’t a case of poor ethics…. This is a violation of federal law, "punishable by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than one year or both". …Furthermore, this federal crime applies both to "the person making the payments" — the Department of Education, possibly including Rod Paige]–as well as "the recipient" (Armstrong Willilams).

If nobody else has called for it, let me be the first: I want to see jail-time, and/or substantive fines against all parties. And if that applies to each instance of payola….well, that’d be fine, too.

The American Mind disagrees on jail time:

Maybe Henke’s trying to prove just how tough a right winger can be toward another right winger. Seriously, Armstrong Williams should be put in jail? Come on. There’s fraud where the end result is people getting hurt, but at worst, Williams engaged in government-funded propaganda. The victims were Williams’ listeners and readers who were mislead. Their damage is mildly psychic….

Bringing this lousy transaction into the light of day destroyed his credibility. Tribune Media Services dropped his syndicated column. And will anyone take what he says seriously whenever he’s a cable news talking head? Williams’ reputation is toast, and it will take years to repair the damage. Henke may think what Williams has suffered is just a slap on the wrist, but for a public intellectual (and I use that term loosely) to have their credibility flushed down the toilet it’s more than a mere slap.

Classical Values has an extentensive post that really can’t be accurately excerpted or summarized. Read it in full. Among other things, he likens mutual linking as a form of payola and notes that an idea has intrinsic value and the payment is not the issue. Again, you need to read this for yourself to get the gist of the argument. Anything we pick (including the summary we just gave you) might distort it.