Black commentator Armstrong Williams took $240,000 to promote No Child Left Behind on his syndicated TV show and to drum up support among black journalists. USA Today reports:
The campaign . . . 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.”
If he believed in it, he’d do it for free. Taking money means Williams was a PR man pretending to be a journalist. When the story came out, Tribune Media Services dropped Williams as a syndicated columnist. (I tried to get on as a TMS columnist four years ago, but they said the market was too tight.)
The top Democrat on the House Education Committee, Rep. George Miller, a supporter of NCLB, thinks the contract is “probably illegal.” An investigation will sort that out. Certainly, the government spends a lot of money on “public information,” despite the ban on “propaganda.” But it’s supposed to done out in the open. Eduwonk, noting that NCLB’s defenders can’t defend the Williams’ deal, calls the Department of Education the gang that can’t flack straight.
Corporations are trying to buy buzz, writes Jeff Jarvis. The goal is to get consumers talking favorably about a product without using overt ads. Bloggers will have a chance to sell their credibility. It’s not worth it.
See more links on Instapundit.
Update: The General Accounting Office decided recently the government can’t distribute videos promoting its policies without identification, reports the New York Times.
The disclosure about the arrangement coincides with a decision by the Government Accountability Office that the administration had violated a law against unauthorized federal propaganda by distributing television news segments that promoted drug enforcement policies without identifying their origin. More than 300 news programs reaching more than 22 million households broadcast the segments. The accountability office made a similar ruling in May about news segments promoting Medicare policies, and the Drug Enforcement Agency stopped distributing the segments then.
The Clinton administration began the practice of sending unidentified videos to news programs, according to the Times.
“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.
Why broadcast a government-provided video? It’s free and requires no staff time.