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Commentator Paid By Bush Admin Admits Error

The State | January 8 2005

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WASHINGTON — Conservative commentator Armstrong Williams said Friday he should have disclosed that he was paid by the Bush administration to plug the No Child Left Behind Act.

But the Marion native said he would not give back the $240,000 he was paid by the U.S. Department of Education.

USA Today reported the contract Friday, prompting a barrage of protests from Democrats, journalists and government watchdogs, who condemned Williams and the White House for co-opting the media.

“The ethical issue is a failure of disclosure,” USC journalism professor Ernest Wiggins said. “He should have been more forthcoming in telling his readers and viewers that he has been contracted to promote the White House.”

Williams conceded Friday that such criticism was “legitimate.”

“It’s a fine line. 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.”

Williams, 45, said he was caught in a “gray area” between the two parts of his business — being a media pundit and being the CEO of a media company.

Tribune Media Services said Friday it would stop distributing his column to newspapers nationwide, including The State.

“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.

Brad Warthen, editorial page editor of The State, called the development “highly troubling. Our editorial board is going to discuss at its regular meeting Monday whether he has a future role on our op-ed page.”

Williams also hosts his own nationally syndicated radio show, “The Right Side,” and is CEO of RightSide Productions, a public relations firm.

Through Ketchum Communications, another public relations firm, Williams contracted in 2003-04 with the Education Department to produce a “minority outreach campaign.”

The goal was to promote to blacks the federal No Child Left Behind program — the centerpiece of Bush’s education agenda.

But Williams also personally touted No Child Left Behind on radio and television, hosted former education secretary Rod Paige several times on his show, and encouraged other radio hosts to interview Paige.

A former aide to the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., Williams is a controversial figure in the black community.

NAACP state president Lonnie Randolph said Williams’ failure to disclose the contract is consistent with his “one-sided” rhetoric.

“If you listen to him and you’re anything other than a conservative Republican, it’s like you’re a bad person,” Randolph said.

Because Williams is a pundit and not a journalist, Wiggins said, he should not be expected to strive for objectivity.

Still, he said, when he praises the government over the airwaves, he should tell listeners he’s getting money from the government to make it look good.

Criticism Friday focused equally on the Bush administration, for hiring a firm to surreptitiously promote its views. Three Democratic U.S. senators demanded the Bush administration recover the money.

“There is no defense for using taxpayer dollars to pay journalists for fake news and favorable coverage of a federal program,” said Ralph Neas, president of the government watchdog group People for the American Way. “It’s a scandalous waste. It’s unethical, and it’s wrong.

“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.”

The White House deferred comment to the Department of Education, which released this statement: “The contract paid to provide the straightforward distribution of information about the department’s mission and NCLB — a permissible use of taxpayer funds under legal government contracting procedures.”

State Sen. Kent Williams, D-Marion, defended his brother, with whom he disagrees about the merits of the president’s education efforts.

“My brother is of great integrity,” Kent Williams said. “His support of No Child Left Behind has nothing to do with the president.”

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