Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein media center, said he is "disgusted" by what he called "the worst kind of fakery and flackery" on Williams's part. "It's propaganda masquerading as news, paid by government, truly a recipe from hell," he said. "It would make any thinking person hearing any pundit speak want to say, 'Okay, how much did they pay you to say that?' " Jones said the contract also shows that "the Bush administration neither understands nor respects the idea of an independent media."
Williams, a onetime aide to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is the founder and chief executive of the Graham Williams Group, a public relations firm on Capitol Hill, and, according to his Web site, a "multi-media wonder." He frequently discusses politics on CNN and other networks and on his own radio show. "The Right Side," owned and hosted by Williams, is carried by the Lynchburg, Va.-based Liberty Channel, which is affiliated with Jerry Falwell; Sky Angel satellite network, a Christian organization; and Sinclair Broadcast Group.
His other show, "On Point" -- on which Williams interviewed Paige last year, as well as Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice -- is carried by TV One, a Silver Spring-based network aimed at African Americans. Williams said he had disclosed his contract to TV One, but chief executive Johnathon Rodgers said the network knew nothing about it and has taken the show off the air while it investigates.
"As a former journalist, I'm bothered by things like this -- people being in the pay of various political groups and pressing their messages without a declaration," Rodgers said.
As a longtime supporter of No Child Left Behind, Williams said, he was receptive in the summer of 2003 when Education Department and Ketchum officials approached him about buying an ad on "The Right Side" to promote the law. Although he "agonized" over the first of two six-month contracts, he said, the law "is something I believe in."
Williams said he aired the spot twice on each "Right Side" broadcast and disclosed the contract on that show. He said he successfully urged another black television personality, Steve Harvey, to twice interview Paige.
Williams has written several newspaper columns defending administration education policy. Last January, he wrote that the No Child Left Behind law "has provided more funds to poor children than any other education bill in this country's history." In May, he wrote that the law "holds entire schools accountable."
Chicago-based Tribune Media Services dropped Williams's column yesterday, saying he had violated his contract. "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," prompting readers to ask whether his opinions "have been purchased by a third party," a company statement said.
In October, Williams praised the law on CNN. He "didn't disclose to us that he was a paid spokesman, and we believe he should have," said CNN spokesman Matthew Furman. "We will obviously take that into serious consideration before booking Armstrong in the future."
Williams said he will not accept such government contracts again.
Spokesmen for other federal agencies acknowledged yesterday that they also have distributed prepackaged video news releases. Last March, the Census Bureau sent out a video release to trumpet Women's History Month. "Women are breaking the gender barrier in one field after another," contractor Karen Ryan, who produced and narrated the videos, said, citing a Census Bureau analysis. The story included comments by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and ended with the sign-off: "I'm Karen Ryan reporting."
Census officials said yesterday that they no longer distribute tapes that could be broadcast as complete news stories.
As recently as October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shipped a video package on the flu vaccine that mimics a real news report. Spokesman Tom Skinner said he expects broadcasters to use the information as components of their own stories.
Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.