Monday, January 10, 2005

The Appearance of Impropriety, part 2

And of course, the latest scandal: taxpayer money is being used to bribe commentators to support the administration's agenda. In exchange for promoting No Child Left Behind, Armstrong Williams received $240,000 of "your money". Despite his "poor judgement", or perhaps because said judgement got his column axed, he's determined to keep the money. Needless to say, the whole thing is an odious liberal plot, nevermind the fact that in 2001, Armstrong publicly opposed the very policies he favored once the administration started paying him.

"...the act of bribing journalists to bias their news in favor of government policies undermines the integrity of our democracy."


Blogger Management said...

Education Dept. paid commentator to promote law
By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY
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."

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.

"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."

The contract may be illegal "because Congress has prohibited propaganda," or any sort of lobbying for programs funded by the government, said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "And it's propaganda."

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."

Williams' contract was part of a $1 million deal with Ketchum that produced "video news releases" designed to look like news reports. The Bush administration used similar releases last year to promote its Medicare prescription drug plan, prompting a scolding from the Government Accountability Office, which called them an illegal use of taxpayers' dollars.

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.

5:50 PM  
Blogger Management said...

Agency paid commentator to push Bush education plan
Officials defend it, but Armstrong Williams now calls criticism of the deal 'legitimate'
Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration paid a prominent commentator to promote the No Child Left Behind schools law to fellow blacks and to give the education secretary media time, records show.
A company run by Armstrong Williams, the syndicated commentator, was paid $240,000 by the Education Department. The goal was to deliver positive messages about President Bush's education overhaul, using Williams' broad reach with minorities.

The deal, which drew a fast rebuke from Democrats on Capitol Hill, is the latest to put the department on the defensive for the way it has promoted Bush's signature domestic policy.

The contract required Williams' company, the Graham Williams Group, to produce radio and TV ads that feature one-minute "reads" by Education Secretary Rod Paige. The deal also allowed Paige and other department officials to appear as studio guests with Williams.

Williams, one of the leading black conservative voices in the country, was also to use his influence with other black journalists to get them to talk about No Child Left Behind.

The law, a centerpiece of Bush's domestic agenda, aims to raise achievement among poor and minority children, with penalties for schools that don't make progress.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday that the decisions on the practice were made by the Education Department.

The Education Department defended its decision as a "permissible use of taxpayer funds under legal government contracting procedures." The point was to help parents, particularly in poor and minority communities, understand the law's benefits, the department said.

Williams called criticism of his relationship with the department "legitimate."

"It's a fine line," he said Friday. "Even though I'm not a journalist — I'm a commentator — I feel I should be held to the media ethics standard. My judgment was not the best. I wouldn't do it again, and I learned from it."

Three Democratic senators — Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Harry Reid of Nevada — wrote Bush on Friday to demand he recover the money paid to Armstrong. The lawmakers contended "the act of bribing journalists to bias their news in favor of government policies undermines the integrity of our democracy."

5:51 PM  
Blogger Management said...

Armstrong Williams' Column Axed by TMS

By Dave Astor

Published: January 07, 2005 8:45 PM ET

NEW YORK Tribune Media Services (TMS) tonight terminated its contract with columnist Armstrong Williams, effective immediately. But Williams told E&P that he plans to continue his feature via self-syndication.

TMS' action came after USA Today reported this morning that Williams had accepted $240,000 from the Bush administration to promote the No Child Left Behind education-reform law on his TV and radio shows. E&P subsequently reported that Williams had also written about NCLB in his newspaper column at least four times last year.

In a statement, TMS said: "[A]ccepting compensation in any form from an entity that serves as a subject of his weekly newspaper columns creates, at the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest. Under these circumstances, readers may well ask themselves if the views expressed in his columns are his own, or whether they have been purchased by a third party." (Full text of the statement is available at the end of this story.)

John Twohey, vice president of editorial and operations at TMS, told E&P tonight that terminating the contract "wasn't a close call" after he and four other senior TMS executives discussed the matter.

"I understand the decision," Williams said when reached by E&P. He also said he would not be returning the $240,000.

Williams said the $240,000 in payments were made to promote NCLB as part of an advertising campaign on his syndicated "The Right Side" TV show and that this ad campaign was disclosed to the show's viewers. But he acknowledged that the payments weren't disclosed to other audiences, including readers of his newspaper column. Williams also acknowledged that he mentioned NCLB in some of his 2004 columns, but he said he didn't make NCLB a "centerpiece" in them.

The columnist plans to start trying to self-syndicate his feature this Monday. How many of his nearly 50 newspaper clients does he think will keep the feature? "That remains to be seen," Williams replied. "But I always feel I can sell my product better than anyone else."

He added: "I'm wounded now, but, guess what, wounds heal."

Williams also discussed the matter during an appearance today on CNN's "Crossfire" with Paul Begala and Robert Novak (who has faced ethics questions of his own after outing an undercover CIA agent in his Chicago Sun-Times/Creators Syndicate column).

According to a CNN transcript, Williams said: "This has been a great lesson for me. I apologize. ... I should be criticized, and I crossed some ethical lines. I've learned from this. It will never happen again."

Bryan Monroe, vice president-print for the National Association of Black Journalists and an assistant vice president-news at Knight Ridder, said in a statement: "I thought we in media were supposed to be watchdogs, not lapdogs." Monroe, speaking before TMS terminated Williams, added that while Williams "has long since abandoned any pretense of being a journalist, his actions still taint those who share the values and ethics of journalism, no matter what color you are."

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in the U.S. Congress sent President Bush a letter that mentioned the $240,000 payment to Williams. The letter said: "Covert propaganda to influence public opinion is unethical and dangerous."

The full text of the TMS statement:

"Tribune Media Services (TMS) today informed Armstrong Williams that it is terminating its business relationship with him effective immediately. After several conversations with Mr. Williams today in which he acknowledged receipt of $240,000 from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), TMS exercised its option to discontinue distribution of his weekly newspaper column.

"The fact that Mr. Williams failed to notify TMS of his receipt (through the Ketchum public relations agency) of payments from the DOE is a violation of provisions in his syndication agreement with TMS. The agreement requires him to notify TMS when 'a possible or potential conflict of interest arises due to the subject matter of (his columns) and the social, professional, financial, or business relations of (Mr. Williams).'

"We accept Mr. Williams' explanation that these payments by Ketchum on behalf of DOE were for advertising messages broadcast on his radio and TV shows. Nevertheless, accepting compensation in any form from an entity that serves as a subject of his weekly newspaper columns creates, at the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest. Under these circumstances, readers may well ask themselves if the views expressed in his columns are his own, or whether they have been purchased by a third party."

5:52 PM  
Blogger Management said...

In an attempt to defend his decision to accept $240,000 from the Bush administration in return for promoting the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law, Armstrong Williams has claimed that he always supported the policy. But in 2001, he strongly criticized the administration's decision to drop private school vouchers from NCLB, even touting this criticism on television and going so far as to write in his nationally syndicated column that by dropping the voucher provision, Bush had "scooped out" the legislation's "soul." And Williams's January 10 column, purporting to explain his arrangement with the Bush administration, focused much more on his support for vouchers than his support for NCLB.

According to a Media Matters search, Williams mentioned No Child Left Behind in only one article prior to accepting the money to promote the law in December 2003 -- and specifically praised NCLB in at least five columns since. In numerous January 7 TV appearances responding to USA Today's report exposing his contract with the Bush administration to promote NCLB, Williams attested to a longstanding belief in NCLB; for example, on CNN's American Morning, Williams said that NCLB was "something that I really believed in as a commentator, something I wrote often about."

But Williams's previous comments about NCLB suggest that Williams developed strong reservations about the law when the voucher provision, which had been in President Bush's original proposal, was dropped before final passage by Congress. In a May 16, 2001, syndicated column, he wrote: "By letting vouchers fall by the wayside and by throwing more money at public schools than any president had previously imagined, Mr. Bush scooped out the soul of his own education proposal." Williams even touted his criticism of Bush for allowing vouchers to be dropped from NCLB. On the June 25, 2001, edition of FOX News' The Edge with Paula Zahn, Williams pointed to his criticism of Bush on NCLB to argue that conservative radio hosts were not giving Bush a free pass: "On the issue like where he [Bush] just totally capitulated to Senator Ted Kennedy [D-MA] on his education plan, on vouchers, which he's trying to revive today, we certainly criticized him on that because the plan eventually became the Kennedy plan."

Notwithstanding his prior sharp criticism of Bush and NCLB because of the voucher exclusion, in his January 10 column, titled "My Apology," Williams touted, ostensibly as support for his assertion that he has been a longtime proponent of NCLB, his long-expressed convictions about the importance of vouchers, disingenuously conflating the two issues:

The ad [the Bush administration paid Williams to air on his syndicated television program] was to promote The Department of Education's "No Child Left Behind" plan. I have long felt that school vouchers hold the greatest promise of ending the racial education gap in this country. We need to hold schools accountable for their failures and create incentives to change. That is why I have vigorously supported school vouchers for the past decade -- in print, on TV, during media appearances and in lectures. I believe that school vouchers represent the greatest chance of stimulating hope for young, inner city school children -- often of color. In fact, I am a board member of Black Americans for Educational Options (BAEO), because I feel that school choice plans hold the promise of a new civil rights movement.

In the past I have used my column space to convey the promise of school options. I continued to do so, even after receiving money to run a series of ads on my television show promoting the "No Child Left Behind" act. I now realize that I exercised poor judgment in continuing to write about a topic which my PR firm was being paid to promote.


I also understand that people must be able to trust that my commentary is unbiased. Please know that I supported school vouchers long before the Department of Education ran a single ad on my TV show. I did not change my views just because my PR firm was receiving paid advertising promoting the No Child Left Behind Act.Williams has indeed been a devoted advocate of vouchers. According to a Media Matters Nexis search, Williams has mentioned "vouchers" in his columns on 33 separate occasions.

In his only article praising NCLB prior to being paid to do so -- posted July 28, 2003, at the website -- Williams wrote that NCLB "empowers parents with the freedom to remove their children from failing and unsafe schools." Williams's remark referred to the public school choice measure in NCLB, which states that "If a child attends a Title I school that has been designated by the state to be in need of improvement or unsafe, parents can choose to send the child to another public school."

4:11 PM  

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