The Education Department paid commentator Armstrong Williams $241,000 to help promote President Bush's No Child Left Behind law on the air, an arrangement that Williams acknowledged yesterday involved "bad judgment" on his part.
In taking the money, funneled through the Ketchum Inc. public relations firm, Williams produced and aired a commercial on his syndicated television and radio shows featuring Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige, touted Bush's education policy, and urged other programs to interview Paige. He did not disclose the contract when talking about the law during cable television appearances or writing about it in his newspaper column.
Congressional Democrats immediately accused the administration of trying to bribe journalists. Williams's newspaper syndicate, Tribune Media Services, yesterday canceled his column. And one television network dropped his program pending an investigation.
Williams, one of the most prominent black conservatives in the media, said he understands "why some people think it's unethical." Asked if people would be justified in thinking he sold his opinions to the government for cash, he said: "It's fair for someone to make that assessment."
The Education Department contract, first reported yesterday by USA Today, increased criticism of the administration's aggressive approach to news management. The department already has paid Ketchum $700,000 to rate journalists on how positively or negatively they report on No Child Left Behind, and to produce a video release on the law that was used by some television stations as if it were real news. Other government agencies -- including the Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- also have distributed such prepackaged videos, a practice that congressional auditors have described as illegal in some cases.
The Williams incident follows a series of other media embarrassments in the past 18 months involving such high-profile outlets as the New York Times, USA Today and CBS News that have further eroded the credibility of the news business.
Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, said the Williams contract "is propaganda, it's unethical, it's dangerous and it's illegal" and called it "worthy of Pravda." Committee Chairman John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) agreed to join Miller in requesting an inspector general's investigation, a spokesman said.
Miller cited two Government Accountability Office opinions that the administration violated federal law with video news releases. In May, the GAO criticized the Department of Health and Human Services for using the technique to promote Medicare's new prescription drug benefit. This week, it criticized the Office of National Drug Control Policy for distributing similar reports with a contractor posing as a journalist, including a "suggested live intro" for anchors to read.
Miller, joined by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats, asked Bush in a letter to put an end to "covert propaganda."
In a separate letter, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) asked the president to recover the money paid to Williams. "We believe that the act of bribing journalists to bias their news in favor of government policies undermines the integrity of our democracy," they wrote.
The Education Department defended the contract, which Paige knew about in advance, as a minority outreach effort through Williams's syndicated program, "The Right Side."
"Our contract was for advertising," said department spokesman John Gibbons. "Our intent was to reach out to minority audiences. Armstrong went out and talked about it -- we didn't have anything to do with that."
But the contract also required Williams to "utilize his long term working relationship" with black producers to "encourage" them to "periodically address the No Child Left Behind Act."
"Our objective was to put out basic information to audiences. . . . We certainly had no intention to do it in an underhanded way," Gibbons added. He said the department stopped putting out video news releases after the first GAO report and has no other contract involving payments to journalists. Ketchum executives declined to comment.