WASHINGTON, D.C. —A bipartisan group of lawmakers has called for an investigation into whether the Bush administration misused taxpayer funds by paying conservative commentator Armstrong Williams—who also operates a public relations firm, Graham Williams Group—$249,000 to promote the president’s education plan in his syndicated columns and television appearances.
According to reports, Williams was sub-contracted by Ketchum, which works for the Department of Education, to help promote the No Child Left Behind Act to minority groups. Under the terms of the contract, Williams agreed to produce and air two 60-second television spots and two radio spots featuring Education Secretary Rod Paige explaining the law.
But the contract also said that Ketchum would “arrange for Mr. Williams to regularly comment” on the law during his broadcasts and gave Paige and other department officials the right to appear as guests on Williams’ shows, as Paige did, conducting a one-hour interview on a show called On Point.
Williams, one of the country’s most prominent black conservatives, is a former aide to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He writes a syndicated column, is the host of a syndicated television show, and is a frequent guest on CNN, NBC and other major media. His website describes him as a ”principled voice for conservatives and Christian values in America’s public debates” who brings ”an independent view... to the central issues of our day.”
But he also accepted money from Ketchum to promote the No Child Left Behind initiative. In May, for example, he used a column to criticize the National Education Association and accuse the teachers’ union of opposing any education reform “that seeks to hold public schools accountable for their failures.”
Williams acknowledged that he had “made an error of judgment” in accepting the payment, which was first disclosed by USA Today. “Even though I’m not a journalist—I’m a commentator—I feel I should be held to the media ethics standard,” said Williams. “My judgment was not the best. I wouldn’t do it again, and I learned from it.”
Tribune Media Services said it would stop syndicating Williams’ column in response to the revelations. “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,” the company said in a statement.
And there were calls for an investigation into whether the payments were a misuse of taxpayer funds, led by Democrats but supported by Republican Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House committee on education and the workforce.
“We believe that the act of bribing journalists to bias their news in favor of government policies undermines the integrity of our democracy,” said Democratic Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts in a letter to the president. They added that such actions “were common in the Soviet Union, but until now, thought to be long extinguished in our country.”
The Education Department on Friday defended its decision as a “permissible use of taxpayer funds under legal government contracting procedures.” The department said its goal was to help parents, particularly in poor and minority communities, understand the benefits of No Child Left Behind, which aims to raise achievement among poor and minority children by penalizing schools that don’t make hit certain targets.
In two cases last year, the Government Accountability Office declared that the Department of Health & Human Services (also working with Ketchum) and the Office of National Drug Control Policy had violated the law by producing video news releases masquerading as real reporting. This case appears to be more serious: while the government made no secret of the fact that it was the source of the VNRs distributed to television stations, the fact that Williams was acting as a paid spokesman for the Department of Education was never made public.
“You don’t pay money to a reporter to tell him that as part of that payment he’s going to allow the secretary of Education so many appearances on TV,” Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, told the Los Angeles Times. ”That’s buying news coverage.”