CHICAGO — A conservative columnist has been dropped by a major syndication service because he accepted a payment from the Bush administration to promote the No Child Left Behind law and to give the education secretary media time.
Armstrong Williams, one of the nation’s leading black conservative voices, has acknowledged that a company he runs was paid $240,000 by the Education Department, and he called criticism of his relationship with the department “legitimate.”
Tribune Media Services said it told Williams on Friday that it was halting distribution of his weekly newspaper column. The company, a subsidiary of the Tribune Co., said it accepted his explanation that the payment was for advertising on his radio and television programs.
“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,” a company statement said.
The White House said Monday the case was an isolated incident, not a practice widely used by the administration.
White House explains scope of agreement
“Questions have been raised about that arrangement, it ought to be looked into, and there are ways to look into matters of that nature,” said Scott McClellan, White House spokesman. He did not say precisely who should look into it, and stopped short of backing an inquiry by the department’s inspector-general, as some lawmakers have sought. He noted that department lawyers have taken up the matter.
The Government Accountability Office is already investigating whether the department illegally promoted the No Child Left Behind law with a video that looks like a news story but fails to make clear the reporter involved was paid by the government. The GAO is also reviewing why the department paid for rankings of how reporters are covering the law.
Democrats call for widened inquiry
On Monday, Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts called for the GAO to expand that investigation to include the payment to Williams.
Williams also hosts a radio show and appears regularly on CNN as a commentator. CNN said it would evaluate the situation, pointing out that Williams has no formal contract with the network.
“We will consider very seriously this issue before booking him as a guest again,” CNN spokeswoman Megan Mahoney said.
A contract required Williams’ company, the Graham Williams Group, to produce radio and TV spots featuring one-minute “reads” by Education Secretary Rod Paige, and to allow Paige and other department officials to appear as studio guests with Williams.
Williams also was to use his influence with other black journalists to get them to discuss No Child Left Behind, a centerpiece of President Bush’s domestic agenda, which aims to raise achievement among poor and minority children and penalizes many schools that don’t make progress.
Black journalists disappointed
The National Association of Black Journalists expressed disappointment in Williams, who is not a member of the group.
“I thought we in the media were supposed to be watchdogs, not lapdogs,” said NABJ Vice President-Print Bryan Monroe, assistant vice president-news at Knight Ridder. “I thought we had an administration headed by a president who took an oath to uphold the First Amendment, not try to rent it.”
Video: Paid for punditry 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 benefits of the law, the department said.
McClellan said he knew of no other contract in the administration like the one Williams had. He also hinted that Williams shared the blame.
“There are also questions about whether or not this commentator should have been disclosing the information publicly,” McClellan said.
The radio show “The Right Side,” which Williams both hosts and owns, is carried by the Lynchburg, Va.-based Liberty Channel, which is affiliated with the Rev. Jerry Falwell; by Sky Angel satellite network, a Christian organization; and by Hunt Valley, Md.-based Sinclair Broadcast Group.
His other show — “On Point,” where Williams interviewed Paige last year — is carried by TV One, a Silver Spring, Md.-based network aimed at African Americans. The Washington Post quoted Williams as saying he had disclosed his contract to TV One, but chief executive Johnathon Rodgers told the newspaper the network knew nothing about it and has taken the show off the air while it investigates.
Williams said he understood the criticism.
“Even though I’m not a journalist — I’m a commentator — I feel I should be held to the media ethics standard,” he told The Associated Press on Jan. 7. “My judgment was not the best. I wouldn’t do it again, and I learned from it.”
Information about the contract with Williams was first reported by USA Today, and Williams’ Web site, www.armstrongwilliams.com, carried the text of the newspaper’s article.
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