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January 8, 2005
Paying Journalists For Coverage Stinks

The blogosphere buzzed yesterday with the revelation that pundit Armstrong Williams received $241,000 from the Department of Education to promote the No Child Left Behind Act and push other commentators to do the same. Williams did not disclose the payment while pushing NCLB in several columns and on his television appearances; instead, he represented his opinions as his own independent views. Howard Kurtz writes in today's Washington Post:

In taking the money, funneled through the Ketchum Inc. public relations firm, Williams produced and aired a commercial on his syndicated television and radio shows featuring Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige, touted Bush's education policy, and urged other programs to interview Paige. He did not disclose the contract when talking about the law during cable television appearances or writing about it in his newspaper column. ...

Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein media center, said he is "disgusted" by what he called "the worst kind of fakery and flackery" on Williams's part. "It's propaganda masquerading as news, paid by government, truly a recipe from hell," he said. "It would make any thinking person hearing any pundit speak want to say, 'Okay, how much did they pay you to say that?' " Jones said the contract also shows that "the Bush administration neither understands nor respects the idea of an independent media.

Yeah. What he said.

I find it very difficult to believe that an experienced journalist or commentator, one who has to make his living off of his independence, could honestly see his way clear to accepting what amounts to a quarter-million-dollar bribe to support a government policy. I don't care what administration we're talking about -- that plain stinks, and any reasonable person knows it. Williams' wishy-washy statements about how he can understand "why some people think it's unethical" and that "it's fair" for people to think he sold out are forms of denial.

Williams, in short, is a journalistic whore. He's finished as a commentator. He claims that he will self-syndicate -- but who will buy his commentary now?

Like any instance of prostitution, of course, the action involves more than one wrongdoer. If Williams is a whore, the Education Department is his john. Who got the bright idea to spend a quarter of a million dollars of taxpayer money to bribe one journalist? The department's spokesman, John Gibbons, tried talking his way around it:

The Education Department defended the contract, which Paige knew about in advance, as a minority outreach effort through Williams's syndicated program, "The Right Side."

"Our contract was for advertising," said department spokesman John Gibbons. "Our intent was to reach out to minority audiences. Armstrong went out and talked about it -- we didn't have anything to do with that."

But the contract also required Williams to "utilize his long term working relationship" with black producers to "encourage" them to "periodically address the No Child Left Behind Act."

"Our objective was to put out basic information to audiences. . . . We certainly had no intention to do it in an underhanded way," Gibbons added.

Well, that explanation might keep Paige or someone else from an indictment, but I note that the Education Department didn't exactly trumpet its arrangement with Williams, either. Someone knew to protect Williams' phony credibility by keeping the arrangement quiet. That indicates pretty clearly that they also knew the public would react with disgust, even if the illegality of the arrangement might not be clear.

Someone needs to have their ass fired at Education over this. Now. Congress has every right to prompt the inspector general to investigate this smelly arrangement. And the Bush admnistration had better make clear to all its staff that paying people off for their commentary is not only unethical and a waste of taxpayer money, it's illegal to boot.

UPDATE: Just to show that the conservative commentators also have deep revulsion about the payola issue, please read Michelle Malkin, who commented first; Jonah Goldberg; and the always-trenchant LaShawn Barber has some special scorn for Williams as a fellow black conservative:

For example, during the election, Rush Limbaugh disclosed that he was an unpaid consultant for the Bush campaign. It was out in the open. He had nothing to hide and he wasnt outed by the media seeking a scandal.

Williams has done the opposite, and it looks bad. I dont care about him; I care about honesty and integrity. Its about character.

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.

Read the whole thing -- she's got the most thoughtful take on this.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 8, 2005 6:30 AM

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