I've been watching the story broke by USA Today this morning that Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 by the United States Department of Education to promote the No Child Left Behind Act. This story has been building momentum all day and has the potential to have a significant impact on the news and talk radio business. The question is, can the government legally and/or ethically pay "commentators" to promote it's programs? I say NO!
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.
And what's wrong with that? (If you have to ask you probably are wasting your time reading this blog.) Well, for starters, even Armstrong recognizes there is an ethical problem.
Williams said Thursday he understands that critics could find the arrangement unethical....
Armstrong went further when talking to the Associated Press as reported here by CNN:
Williams called criticism of his relationship with the department "legitimate."
"It's a fine line," he told The Associated Press on 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."
Ah, but the Columbia School of Journalism on their blog, CJR Daily, called the payment to Armstrong a "bribe" and went on to say:
...there should be zero sympathy for Williams. There is no gray area in this case: Williams took money -- lots of money -- to cloak government propaganda as his own commentary. And then, when exposed, he brushed the incident off with an excuse worthy of a professional arsonist explaining why he took money to torch a block of dilapidated buildings.
Agreed! There are serious ethical problems here.
But don't stop there. According to several members of Congress this goes beyond a problem of ethics into one of legality. The Agence France Press reported on a letter to President Bush and signed by incoming Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (whom Armstrong Williams referred to as ignorant and racist less than a month ago), and Senators Ted Kennedy and Frank Lautenberg. That story said, in part:
The scandal broke in Friday's USA Today, and enraged the Democratic Party, which called this a case of "Bush wasting taxpayer's money for political propaganda."
"We believe that the act of bribing journalists to bias their news in favor of government policy undermines the integrity of our democracy," said a group of opposition Democrats headed by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
Reid and the Democrats called on the White House to refund the public moneys.
This Associated Press story says:
Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House education committee, asked for an inspector general investigation into whether the deal was legal and ethical. The Republican chairman of the committee, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, supported the request.
Did you get that? West Chester's very own John Boehner supports an IG investigation into this matter. But what laws were broken? In this press release, People for the American Way says Williams broke the "payola" law.
"There is no defense for using taxpayer dollars to pay journalists for ‘fake news’ and favorable coverage of a federal program. It’s a scandalous waste, it’s unethical and it’s wrong,” said Neas. “It reminds me of the old ‘payola’ scandals in radio. Armstrong Williams received $240,000 of our tax money – yours and mine – to create propaganda for a government program. If that’s not illegal, it ought to be.”
Does anyone else remember when Lincoln Ware was caught by John Kiesewetter taking bribes to oppose Baseball on Broadway and support placing the baseball stadium on the riverfront. (This is slightly different because it involved a campaign versus a government program.) Kiesewetter let Lincoln off the hook but his story is relevant to this issue.
If someone could prove a radio personality was being paid to express an opinion on the public airwaves — without disclosure — the radio personality could face jail and a stiff fine.
It's the old payola law, enacted in the 1960s to stop record companies from paying stations for playing certain songs.
...[I]f the radio personality is paid “to disseminate particular views,” the law requires him to notify station managers. Then the station must inform listeners of the situation every time the person expresses that opinion on the air, “so the public knows by whom they're being persuaded,” Mr. [Bobby] Baker [an attorney for the Federal Communications Commission] says.
So, the first law allegedly broken is the law against taking "payola" or "plugola". Then, according to this press release from Senator Lautenberg:
In their letter to President Bush, the Lawmakers cite federal laws that prohibit taxpayer funds from being spent by the Executive Branch for "Covert Propaganda".
To be clearer, the letter says:
These payments to Mr. Williams constitute a clear violation of the "Publicity and Propaganda" laws recently passed by Congress. The payments also violated the Antideficiency Act.
I saw Armstrong announce on "The O'Reilly Factor" that Tribune Media Services has cancelled his syndicated newspaper column. You'd think Armstrong would be humbled by the negative media attention, right? Not so. The USA Today story is prominently displayed on the front page of his website. That signals to me that he isn't worried about this and expects it to blow away. He is giving interviews and getting his name in news stories around the world.
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.
Update: Read about new developments in the Armstrong Williams scandal.
[Update II: Other views from Steve Gilliard, La Shawn Barber, Ramblings' Journal, Outside The Tent, D. C. Thornton, Brian, Rob Bernard, Booker Rising, Eduwonk I and II, Expertise.]
Update III: Read my take on the Cincinnati Enquirer dropping Armstrong and other developments.
Update IV: Media Matters has a .pdf version of the letter from Senators Reid, Kennedy, and Lautenberg, a letter from from Rep. Louise Slaughter to TV One and Sinclair Broadcasting, and a letter from Media Matters's President and CEO David Brock along with good contact information.