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Controversy: Media and the Administration

Armstrong Williams
Conservative Commentator
Monday, January 10, 2005; 12:00 PM

Conservative commentator Armstrong Williams was online Monday, Jan. 10, at Noon ET to discuss the controversy surrounding payment to him by the Education Department to speak positively about the No Child Left Behind law for the Bush administration.

Read the story:Administration Paid Commentator (Post, Jan. 8)


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A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Armstrong Williams: Thank you for joining me in this hour to have a frank discussion about the recent controversy surrounding money and media.

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washingtonpost.com: Mr. Williams, welcome to washingtonpost.com. Since the story broke about the $240,000 that your company received from the Education Department to promote No Child Left Behind, you have been quoted as saying that it is important to have a credible voice and not to be perceived as being paid for what you say. How badly do you feel your credibility has been damaged? What will you do to convince the public that you are not being influenced again?

Armstrong Williams: This is the only instance in my history with media that anyone has ever advertised with my syndicated show while at the same time I was an advocate for the issue, meaning No Child Left Behind.

I have never been involved with any other issue that I've advocated where any advertising dollars or any kind of compensation have been involved.


Obviously, I've lost my syndicated column but I feel that I've taken responsibility. Anyone who knows me knows that I will not advocate anything that I believe in for money. I'm a principled columnist and commentator but yet I'm ashamed that my bad judgment has cast a black shadow on my name.

Where I go in the future depends on my credibility and never violating journalistic ethical standards again.

I've learned from this, the most important thing being it is far more important to maintain my integrity and ethics as a media pundit than to concern myself with generating dollars as a entrepreneur.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you believe what you did was illegal, or simply unethical?

Armstrong Williams: Simply bad judgment that crossed a gray area of ethics. My bad judgment was an omission but I never intended to deceive or mislead anyone.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you consider yourself a newsman? What is the difference between a pundit, a commentator and a newsman?

Armstrong Williams: I'm a pundit and commentator. A pundit or commentator are one in the same. They are not expected to be objective. They're not expected to represent both sides of a story. They're not even expected to be balanced.

I'm on the air oftentimes because I am a conservative. I'm a third generation Republican. I am an advocate of many of the Bush polices and I share many of the values of the Republican party. So I'm invited on to debate someone to take the opposite position to present both sides of the issue.

However, in writing my column, I am far more balanced and objective to both sides. But it's different for me when I'm on TV and radio.

A newsman is someone who should not have a political affiliation. Someone who should be able to report both sides without any biases and when you read this person's report in the newspaper, on radio or TV, you would get no indication of their political affiliation or their value system.

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Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Williams,

Over the past few days, we have heard much from you about your contract with the Department of Education. Can you explain the silence on their end?

Armstrong Williams: I am only focusing on the issue surrounding me and the role I played in this controversy. It seems as though the media elite is only interested in me and me alone and therefore I will abide by their rules in explaining the role that I and my advertising firm played in promoting No Child Left Behind.

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Tucson, Ariz.: Why don't you give back the money, and regain your credibility and integrity?

Armstrong Williams: Giving back the money is not about regaining my credibility and integrity. I am a businessman. Ketchum Communications purchased advertising time: two one-minute commercials to promote No Child Left Behind. After the first 16 months it was communicated to us that between 10 and 15 million people visited the No Child Left Behind Web page as a result of our advertising campaign. There were markets initially that we were not in that Ketchum felt it necessary that we run the ads. We had to go out and buy programming time just to have ads on the air in that market.

So therefore, we honor our contract. We delivered on our goals and they delivered on their compensation. That's business: supply and demand.

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Pasadena, Calif.: The Post reported that the Education Department's Rod Paige was interviewed by Steve Harvey at your behest,on the comic's Los Angeles Morning radio program. Was Harvey compensated for the interview by you or the PR firm that contracted with you to promote the Ed Department agenda? Was Harvey aware of your financial arrangement with the public relations firm?

Armstrong Williams: Very good question. I am the host of a show titled On Point. It is a joint venture between TV One and Comcast cable. In Jan., 2004, TV One debuted on Comcast Cable. TV One executives asked if I would be willing to be interviewed by some of their radio stations where Comcast would not be carrying TV One initially. It was part of a promotion campaign which I was a part of for the new network.

One of the interviews that was set up for me was the Steve Harvey Show. In the course of my being interviewed by Steve Harvey, he wanted me to explain to his audience why I was a third generation Republican. That conversation led him to tell me that school children in California, in the inner city, in my instances did not have books in the classroom. I suggested to him to have the Sec. of Education on his program to discuss the fact that there were not school books in some inner city classrooms in the state.

Within about two months of that interview, Steve Harvey's producer not only booked Sec. Paige with my assistance but he also asked that I be on the show with the secretary. So the show centered around the lack of school books in California.

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Arlington, Va.: What is your relationship with Secretary of Education Rod Paige who it seems will have his reputation tarnished by this contract as he is walking out the door?

Armstrong Williams: I know him. I respect him. And I've interviewed him for TV One On Point. And I've interviewed him for Sinclair Broadcasting.

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Washington, D.C.: Were you "used" by the Bush administration since they wanted to get blacks behind the education reforms? How does this affect your standing in the black community?

Armstrong Williams: Absolutely not. I'm an entrepreneur and a pundit and I made a decision to let No Child Left Behind buy advertising on my television show The Right Side, which I own. Never once did I ask any black media company, black media pundit, black media journalist to do anything for No Child Left Behind.

From America's Black Forum to TV One to the Russ Parr Morning Show -- never once did I make a request to become advocates for No Child Left Behind or to have NCLB advocates as their guests. In fact, in my calls to many of the black newspapers that carry my column, all are fully behind me from the Amsterdam News in New York to the Washington-Baltimore African newspapers. All will continue to carry my column that I have spoken to thus far.

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Clinton, Md.: What are your plans now? Do you think you will be able to come back from this incident?

Armstrong Williams: Without a doubt. I will pay the price. We will put in place in our companies someone other than me to review all contracts, all documents to ensure that what happened recently can never happen again. And because the media elite said to me over the weekend with their full wall-to-wall coverage that I am a member of their club and need to behave accordingly that I will adhere to their journalistic standards.

Though I see myself still as a pundit and commentator, the same standards that apply to journalists should apply to me.

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Easton, Md.: Please elaborate on your decision not to return the $240,000. If, on one hand, you agree that it was ethically wrong to accept it, how can it be ethically right to hold on to it? And even if you still maintain that you should keep it, don't you see that returning it would go far in helping regain your creditability? Thank you.

Armstrong Williams: My decision was that they bought advertising space. The ethical line that I crossed was not disclosing to the media that No Child Left Behind was an advertiser on my syndicated television show.

Their ad buy was a legitimate advertising campaign. Those were real ads that ran for one year on my syndicated show. The majority of the affiliates that carry my show don't compensate me for my programming. I am able to make my revenues in order to keep my show on the air by selling the advertising spots that we share which we split 50/50. I'm able to keep all the revenue of my share to pay for production costs: producers, syndication, advertising, booking and distribution.

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State College, Pa.: How common do you think it is that commentators are put in a situation where they are offered money to promote particular agendas? And do you think others are "getting away" with it, while you were just unlucky in getting caught?

Armstrong Williams: Let me not bring anyone else into this discussion. The focus of this discussion today is about me and my error in judgment. But I will raise this: what are the standards? On the one hand, I should not take advertising dollars? Or should journalists not go out to give $10 to $15,000 for speeches before some special interest group? I'm just trying to figure out what the consistent standard is for everyone.

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College Park, Md.: Do you think this is an example of the dishonesty of the entire Bush Presidency?

Armstrong Williams: I'm not here to focus on the Bush administration today. My only concern today is Armstrong Williams and the fact that I erred in judgment ... is the reason why we're having this chat today.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: When you received this advertising payment, was there any indication from anyone in the government that there was any connection between your position on the administration and the advertising itself?

Armstrong Williams: No, absolutely not.

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Davenport, Iowa: Who signed your contract from the Department of Education? Did they approach you ... or you them?

Armstrong Williams: Our contract was with Ketchum Communications. They were company hired to do the public relations. We were hired to do the advertising as a sub-contract.

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Maryland: Maybe I'm missing something, but it was not just advertising, right? Were you not also paid to speak on the air about No Child Left Behind -- in other words, paid for your supposedly unpaid-for, unbiased views? Why would you not give that money back?

Armstrong Williams: I was only paid for the advertising on The Right Side and to talk about it during my television show.

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Cambridge, Mass.: Mr. Williams,

On at least one cable network you argued that you provide "opinion" or "commentary" in your syndicated column as opposed to news. Do you believe that most of your readers expect that the opinions or commentary that you provide is based on your uncompensated opinion or do you feel that you have either explicitly or implicitly made it clear that some of your articles represent compensated endorsements? In other words, do you feel that you have a responsibility to disclose to your readers any financial relationships that you have to any policy or interest group that you support?

Armstrong Williams: Absolutely. I do have an obligation and the only instance where that was compromised was with No Child Left Behind.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Mr. Williams,

How would you compare and contrast your "paid" relationship/situation with that of Rev. Al Sharpton and his "paid" relationship/situation with the Kerry campaign?

Armstrong Williams: Mine is legitimate paid advertising to my production company and it is strictly for ad buys and commercial time. It's not pocketed by me.

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New York: Should people who appear on TV be required to document their conflicts (monetary, for instance) as the stock analysts now are required to do?

Armstrong Williams: Yes, I think it's a very good idea.

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Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Williams, as a paid PR professional, would you say that these types of payments from a federal government agency to PR firms are rare? Did these types of executive branch-media relationships occur during the clinton years, do you know?

Armstrong Williams: Yes, they did. And I'm only finding out by reading today's Wall Street Journal that this is the way they do business in Washington.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Williams,

Do you feel you were effective in reaching the black community as a whole about NCLB? I would think that you would be reaching other black conservatives with your outlets who already are supportive of the president and his policies. What efforts did you use to try to reach moderate, Democratic or the rest of the black community?

Armstrong Williams: Our show is a national show. It reached every demographic.

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New York, N.Y.: How often did you speak about NCLB before you received your contract from the U.S. Education Department?

Armstrong Williams: Before it was enacted in 2001, while it was being debated.

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Washington, D.C. : How does your decision to accept the payment effect other black pundits, journalists and conservatives ?

What will you do in the future to support this seemingly small group of African-Americans ?

Armstrong Williams: I'm an American commentator. I'm not hyphenated nor have I ever pretended to be.

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Washington, D.C. : As a journalist, did it even occur to you that this might be seen as unethical? Are you concerned that your credibility is eroded by this action, and how will anyone know if your opinion is yours or was bought from you by someone else?

Armstrong Williams: I'm a commentator and pundit -- not a journalist. Yes, my credibility has been tainted; however, this is the first and only time that I've ever advocated a position where a government agency was advertising that position on my syndicated show. Everything that I've ever worked for and everything that I aspire to become in life hinges on my credibility, my word and for people to trust me. I have no choice. This can never happen again.

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West Palm Beach, Fla.: Mr. Williams, are you a lawyer? Are you part of the "Media Elite"? Are you both or neither? If the answer to any of the above is yes, then do any of those organizations have ethical standards and could you face ethics charges in light of this situation?

Armstrong Williams: I'm not a lawyer and I was just inducted into the media elite over the weekend given that wall-to-wall coverage so I'm just beginning to learn their rules and guidelines.

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Armstrong Williams: Thank you for your honesty, your candor, your participation and willingness to hear me out today. My only regret is that I cannot respond to everyone and I wish we had much more time. You have my word that you can trust what I say and what I write. There will be many more discussions about me in the future but none, ever, regarding ethical issues with me in the media.

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