Armstrong Williams: Education Propaganda, Payola, or Whatever You Call it, is Still False ADvertising and Political Misconduct
The Armstrong Williams' scandal is only one story of thousands. He was caught. We have his apology. Mr. Frank Rich asks how many others there are, and expresses dismay that the public is "six degrees of separation from anything that might resemble the truth". We need to find the others. Betsy Combier
January 16, 2005
FRANK RICH, NY TIMES
All the President's Newsmen
One day after the co-host Tucker Carlson made his farewell appearance and two days after the new president of CNN made the admirable announcement that he would soon kill the program altogether, a television news miracle occurred: even as it staggered through its last nine yards to the network guillotine, "Crossfire" came up with the worst show in its fabled 23-year history.
This was a half-hour of television so egregious that it makes Jon Stewart's famous pre-election rant seem, if anything, too kind. This time "Crossfire" wasn't just "hurting America," as Mr. Stewart put it, by turning news into a nonsensical gong show. It was unwittingly, or perhaps wittingly, complicit in the cover-up of a scandal.
I do not mean to minimize the CBS News debacle and other recent journalistic outrages at The New York Times and elsewhere. But the Jan. 7 edition of CNN's signature show can stand as an exceptionally ripe paradigm of what is happening to the free flow of information in a country in which a timid news media, the fierce (and often covert) Bush administration propaganda machine, lax and sometimes corrupt journalistic practices, and a celebrity culture all combine to keep the public at many more than six degrees of separation from anything that might resemble the truth.
On this particular "Crossfire," the featured guest was Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator, talk-show host and newspaper columnist (for papers like The Washington Times and The Detroit Free Press, among many others, according to his Web site). Thanks to investigative reporting by USA Today, he had just been unmasked as the frontman for a scheme in which $240,000 of taxpayers' money was quietly siphoned to him through the Department of Education and a private p.r. firm so that he would "regularly comment" upon (translation: shill for) the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind policy in various media venues during an election year. Given that "Crossfire" was initially conceived as a program for tough interrogation and debate, you'd think that the co-hosts still on duty after Mr. Carlson's departure might try to get some answers about this scandal, whose full contours, I suspect, we are only just beginning to discern.
But there is nothing if not honor among bloviators. "On the left," as they say at "Crossfire," Paul Begala, a Democratic political consultant, offered condemnations of the Bush administration but had only soft questions and plaudits for Mr. Williams. Three times in scarcely as many minutes Mr. Begala congratulated his guest for being "a stand-up guy" simply for appearing in the show's purportedly hostile but entirely friendly confines. When Mr. Williams apologized for having crossed "some ethical lines," that was enough to earn Mr. Begala's benediction: "God bless you for that."
"On the right" was the columnist Robert Novak, who "in the interests of full disclosure" told the audience he is a "personal friend" of Mr. Williams, whom he "greatly" admires as "one of the foremost voices for conservatism in America." Needless to say, Mr. Novak didn't have any tough questions, either, but we should pause a moment to analyze this "Crossfire" co-host's disingenuous use of the term "full disclosure."
Last year Mr. Novak had failed to fully disclose - until others in the press called him on it - that his son is the director of marketing for Regnery, the company that published "Unfit for Command," the Swift boat veterans' anti-Kerry screed that Mr. Novak flogged relentlessly on CNN and elsewhere throughout the campaign. Nor had he fully disclosed, as Mary Jacoby of Salon reported, that Regnery's owner also publishes his subscription newsletter ($297 a year). Nor has Mr. Novak fully disclosed why he has so far eluded any censure in the federal investigation of his outing of a C.I.A. operative, Valerie Plame, while two other reporters, Judith Miller of The Times and Matt Cooper of Time, are facing possible prison terms in the same case. In this context, Mr. Novak's "full disclosure" of his friendship with Mr. Williams is so anomalous that it raised many more questions than it answers.
That he and Mr. Begala would be allowed to lob softballs at a man who may have been a cog in illegal government wrongdoing, on a show produced by television's self-proclaimed "most trusted" news network, is bad enough. That almost no one would notice, let alone protest, is a snapshot of our cultural moment, in which hidden agendas in the presentation of "news" metastasize daily into a Kafkaesque hall of mirrors that could drive even the most earnest American into abject cynicism. But the ugly bigger picture reaches well beyond "Crossfire" and CNN.
Mr. Williams has repeatedly said in his damage-control press appearances that he was being paid the $240,000 only to promote No Child Left Behind. He also routinely says that he made the mistake of taking the payola because he wasn't part of the "media elite" and therefore didn't know "the rules and guidelines" of journalistic conflict-of-interest. His own public record tells us another story entirely. While on the administration payroll he was not only a cheerleader for No Child Left Behind but also for President Bush's Iraq policy and his performance in the presidential debates. And for a man who purports to have learned of media ethics only this month, Mr. Williams has spent an undue amount of time appearing as a media ethicist on both CNN and the cable news networks of NBC.
He took to CNN last October to give his own critique of the CBS News scandal, pointing out that the producer of the Bush-National Guard story, Mary Mapes, was guilty of a conflict of interest because she introduced her source, the anti-Bush partisan Bill Burkett, to a Kerry campaign operative, Joe Lockhart. In this Mr. Williams's judgment was correct, but grave as Ms. Mapes's infraction was, it isn't quite in the same league as receiving $240,000 from the United States Treasury to propagandize for the Bush campaign on camera. Mr. Williams also appeared with Alan Murray on CNBC to trash Kitty Kelley's book on the Bush family, on CNN to accuse the media of being Michael Moore's "p.r. machine" and on Tina Brown's CNBC talk show to lambaste Mr. Stewart for doing a "puff interview" with John Kerry on "The Daily Show" (which Mr. Williams, unsurprisingly, seems to think is a real, not a fake, news program).
But perhaps the most fascinating Williams TV appearance took place in December 2003, the same month that he was first contracted by the government to receive his payoffs. At a time when no one in television news could get an interview with Dick Cheney, Mr. Williams, of all "journalists," was rewarded with an extended sit-down with the vice president for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a nationwide owner of local stations affiliated with all the major networks. In that chat, Mr. Cheney criticized the press for its coverage of Halliburton and denounced "cheap shot journalism" in which "the press portray themselves as objective observers of the passing scene, when they obviously are not objective."
This is a scenario out of "The Manchurian Candidate." Here we find Mr. Cheney criticizing the press for a sin his own government was at that same moment signing up Mr. Williams to commit. The interview is broadcast by the same company that would later order its ABC affiliates to ban Ted Koppel's "Nightline" recitation of American casualties in Iraq and then propose showing an anti-Kerry documentary, "Stolen Honor," under the rubric of "news" in prime time just before Election Day. (After fierce criticism, Sinclair retreated from that plan.) Thus the Williams interview with the vice president, implicitly presented as an example of the kind of "objective" news Mr. Cheney endorses, was in reality a completely subjective, bought-and-paid-for fake news event for a broadcast company that barely bothers to fake objectivity and both of whose chief executives were major contributors to the Bush-Cheney campaign. The Soviets couldn't have constructed a more ingenious or insidious plot to bamboozle the citizenry.
Ever since Mr. Williams was exposed by USA Today, he has been stonewalling all questions about what the Bush administration knew of his activities and when it knew it. In his account, he was merely a lowly "subcontractor" of the education department. "Never was the White House ever mentioned anytime during this," he told NBC's Campbell Brown, as if that were enough to deflect Ms. Brown's observation that "the Department of Education works for the White House." For its part, the White House is saying that the whole affair is, in the words of the press secretary, Scott McClellan, "a contracting matter" and "a decision by the Department of Education." In other words, the buck stops (or started) with Rod Paige, the elusive outgoing education secretary who often appeared with Mr. Williams in his pay-for-play propaganda.
But we now know that there have been at least three other cases in which federal agencies have succeeded in placing fake news reports on television during the Bush presidency. The Department of Health and Human Services, the Census Bureau and the Office of National Drug Control Policy have all sent out news "reports" in which, to take one example, fake newsmen purport to be "reporting" why the administration's Medicare prescription-drug policy is the best thing to come our way since the Salk vaccine. So far two Government Accountability Office investigations have found that these Orwellian stunts violated federal law that prohibits "covert propaganda" purchased with taxpayers' money. But the Williams case is the first one in which a well-known talking head has been recruited as the public face for the fake news instead of bogus correspondents (recruited from p.r. companies) with generic eyewitness-news team names like Karen Ryan and Mike Morris.
Or is Mr. Williams merely the first one of his ilk to be exposed? Every time this administration puts out fiction through the news media - the "Rambo" exploits of Jessica Lynch, the initial cover-up of Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire - it's assumed that a credulous and excessively deferential press was duped. But might there be more paid agents at loose in the media machine? In response to questions at the White House, Mr. McClellan has said that he is "not aware" of any other such case and that he hasn't "heard" whether the administration's senior staff knew of the Williams contract - nondenial denials with miles of wiggle room. Mr. Williams, meanwhile, has told both James Rainey of The Los Angeles Times and David Corn of The Nation that he has "no doubt" that there are "others" like him being paid for purveying administration propaganda and that "this happens all the time." So far he is refusing to name names - a vow of omertà all too reminiscent of that taken by the low-level operatives first apprehended in that "third-rate burglary" during the Nixon administration.
If CNN, just under new management, wants to make amends for the sins of "Crossfire," it might dispatch some real reporters to find out just which "others" Mr. Williams is talking about and to follow his money all the way back to its source.
Neas on Armstrong Willams "Payola" Contract
Unethical, Scandalous Waste of Taxpayer Dollars
People For The American Way
Washington – Ralph G. Neas president of People For the American Way today called on the White House to immediately ask all federal agencies to disclose any public relations contracts with news commentators, and any programs that seek to disguise the release of agency information as real news stories put out by independent news organizations.
Neas' comments came on the heels of the disclosure that the Department of Education paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote the controversial "No Child Left Behind" education legislation under a contract with the public relations firm Ketchum. Among other services, the firm provided videotaped releases designed to look like local television reports, and rated journalists' coverage of the program.
"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."
Neas noted that a similar Ketchum contract with the Department of Health and Human Services used the fake television reports, judged by the General Accounting Office to be illegal. Reports this morning also disclosed that the White House's Office of National Drug Control policy spent $155,000 on fake television reports under a contract with a former journalist.
"More than a million tax dollars have been spent on these outrageous programs already. There may be more. Congress should investigate, and the White House should immediately call for full disclosure of all such contracts throughout the federal government," said Neas. "This is not a fine line. It is a bright, clear line between government and the operation of a free and independent press that should not be crossed."
January 15, 2005
F.C.C. to Investigate Commentator Paid to Promote Bush Policy
By ANNE E. KORNBLUT, NY Times
WASHINGTON, Jan. 14 - The Federal Communications Commission said Friday that it would investigate whether Armstrong Williams broke the law by failing to disclose a $240,000 payment in exchange for promoting the Bush administration's central education bill on his syndicated television show.
Michael K. Powell, the agency's chairman, ordered the investigation as F.C.C. commissioners reported thousands of complaints about Mr. Williams, and as two Democratic senators called for a broader investigation into accusations that the administration was using illegal propaganda to advance its agenda.
The two senators, Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota and Ron Wyden of Oregon, joined a growing group of Democrats in asking the Government Accountability Office to investigate the deal between the Department of Education and Mr. Williams, a conservative commentator who was given the contract with the administration in the fall of 2003.
Jonathan Adelstein, one of the agency's Democratic commissioners, said the agency had received 12,000 complaints.
"We've got to get to the bottom of this," said Mr. Adelstein, who on Thursday demanded an F.C.C. investigation, a call joined on Friday by another Democratic commissioner, Michael J. Copps.
President Bush publicly agreed, saying in an interview with USA Today published Friday that he expected officials to draw a bright line between journalism and propaganda.
"The cabinet needs to take a good look and make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again," Mr. Bush said in the interview.
Mr. Williams maintained that he had done nothing wrong. He said he had taken payments in two installments from the Education Department for $107,000 and $133,000 in exchange for producing and broadcasting segments featuring Education Secretary Rod Paige about the No Child Left Behind act, which were run as paid advertisements.
Any on-air push he had given to the bill, Mr. Williams said, was voluntary, stemming from his conservative outlook. He also denied breaking any journalistic code of ethics.
"I'm not a journalist; I'm a pundit," Mr. Armstrong said.
Mr. Powell, in a brief statement announcing the investigations, said they were aimed at "potential violations of the 'payola' and sponsorship identification provisions of the Communications Act."
Agency officials said the offense could cost Mr. Williams and, potentially, the local broadcasters who ran his show up to $11,000 in fines. Under agency regulations, individual broadcasters are required to disclose any payments from outside entities in exchange for promoting items on-air; local stations are also expected to disclose those payments if they are aware of them.
Separately, the agency announced it would look into accusations involving WKSE-FM in Buffalo, a subsidiary of the Entercom Communications Corporation, where a programmer was fired for breaking rules accepting gifts.
On Thursday, Mr. Paige instructed the Education Department to conduct an internal inquiry to see whether it did anything improper by arranging a more than $1 million contract with the Ketchum public relations firm, which in turn reached an agreement with Mr. Williams.
Fake news coupled with deception is a disgraceful use of taxpayers' money
By Asheville Citizen-Times, Jan. 7, 2005
"Congress has prohibited propaganda. . And it's propaganda.' - Melanie Sloan, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics.
USA Today reported Friday that Armstrong Williams, a well- known commentator, was being paid for his opinions by, well, by us, the American taxpayers.
The newspaper reported Williams, one of those modern media creations who appears in print and is omnipresent on radio and television, is being paid by the Bush administration to the tune of $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind program.
Williams said he saw how people could think the deal was unethical, but told USA Today, "I wanted to do it because it's something I believe in.'
Frankly, most people could believe in the Tooth Fairy for $240,000.
We'll say this for Williams: He held his end of the bargain, tirelessly promoting NCLB.
About the nicest thing you can say of this affair is that Williams is like the old definition of an honest politician: "one who, when he is bought, will stay bought.'
One of the requirements was for Williams to interview Rod Paige, Education Secretary. Williams went the extra mile, even penning a column praising Paige for calling the National Education Association a terrorist group.
Let's be blunt: what Williams has done is unethical and quite possibly illegal. It's the latest in a round of disingenuous approaches toward molding public opinion hatched by this administration.
The deal was part of an arrangement with the Ketchum public relations firm, which among other things has produced fake new reports ("video news releases") for distribution to local television stations to pitch its Medicare drug prescription plan.
Another recently disclosed "news report' by the Office of National Drug Control Policy featured a pitch called "Urging Parents to Get the Facts Straight on Teen Marijuana Use,' by "reporter' Mike Morris. The Medicare and drug pieces were distributed for use by local television stations, which is fine. They didn't disclose that they were essentially government press releases.
Now, the government should provide information on public health and its policy initiatives. But if it's a good idea you shouldn't have to be deceptive about it. Public relations should be labeled as such, not hidden as legitimate reporting. What Williams has done would get him fired immediately at this newspaper. We're talking fired with extreme prejudice. Fired like, if fired out of a cannon, he'd break free of earth's orbit.
If it's fake news in fun, it's called parody. Leave that to Jon Stewart.
If it's fake news and it's deceptive, it's called propaganda. Leave that to Pravda.
We, as citizens and taxpayers, should demand it end immediately.
And as taxpayers, we should also demand our money back.
Taxpayer-Funded Political PR: Bush Administration Pays Media Commentator to Support No Child Left Behind
Armstrong Williams Apologizes
The Payola Scandal of 1959
The Payola Scandal is usually thought of as the event which started legendary DJ and rock promoter Alan Freed on his long, tragic downslide. Fact is, the 1959 Congressional Hearings had even more far-reaching effects, changing the way record companies and radio stations did business with each other (but not, it should be noted, stopping the practice of payola, which continues in various forms to the present day).
The scandal touched recording artists like Bobby Darin and Les Paul, other DJs, most notably Dick Clark and Arnie "Woo Woo" Ginsburg, and the presidents of several of the country's larger radio stations. Over time, many have claimed the investigation came about in order to assuage the public's fears about rock and roll and its failed legitimacy as a musical form.
Music, Memories & More
A Mix of Comedy & music, for Corp. Meetings, Benefits or Golf Events
Whatever you think after reviewing the evidence, remember that while Alan Freed is gone, most of the people affected by the scandal survived and even grew in stature. Much like the music itself.
The History of Rock N' Roll Also defends rock's place in the scandal, while offering some vital stats.
The Boston Rock & Roll Museum An excellent, even poetic, timeline that traces the scandal and its tragic aftermath over a three-year run.
FootageFinders.com This site is just a clearinghouse for stock footage, but they have clips on the scandal, and there are some brief courtroom transcripts here.
The British Film Institute At the end of this interview, legendary rock songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller discuss how payola may have made radio worse, not better.
rec.music.beatles.com Did the Beatles' rise to fame take a little longer than it should have because of the scandal? An interesting theory from saki.
Offbeat Magazine Here, Rockabilly legend Ronnie Dawson talks about why the scandal may have been a blessing in disguise for his career.
The History Channel In this audio clip, Alan Freed gives what would be his final goodbye to his audience.