"IT WAS BAD judgment." That was the response of Armstrong Williams, television commentator and pundit, when we asked yesterday whether he had, as alleged in a USA Today story, accepted $241,000 of government money in exchange for promoting the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind education reform legislation. Mr. Williams also confirmed that the contract he signed with Ketchum Inc., a public relations firm hired by the Education Department, not only obliged him to run advertisements during his show but to also "regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts" and to encourage other producers to "periodically address NCLB" as well. Mr. Williams, a commentator who appeared on MSNBC, CNN and Fox, as well as on his own syndicated program, "On the Right Side," also published a handful of articles directly or indirectly praising the Bush administration's education policy, none of which noted that he was accepting money from the Education Department. Asked whether he was aware of the codes of ethics published by multiple journalists' and broadcasters' associations, which explicitly forbid members to accept money for promoting particular views, Mr. Williams said, "I don't know anything about these kinds of documents."
At least Mr. Williams -- who now says, "I never want anybody to have the perception that I'm only advocating something because I'm paid for it" -- has the belated good sense to realize that this was all a big mistake. His newspaper syndicate has already canceled his column, and one television network dropped his program. It is much less clear that the Bush administration, whose policies lay behind this remarkable ethical violation, either understands the error or is prepared to suffer any consequences. In response to questions yesterday, the Education Department put out an inane statement saying that "children do better in school when their parents are involved, which is why the Department has undertaken broad outreach to help parents -- particularly those in minority and low-income communities -- take advantage of the No Child Left Behind law."
Nor is this the first time the Bush administration has been caught walking a fine line between ordinary explanation of government policies and covert propaganda. Last year the Department of Health and Human Services was severely criticized by the Government Accountability Office for producing advertisements designed to hype Medicare reforms in advance of the election. This week the GAO condemned a White House ad campaign against drug abuse: Although the ads in question appeared to be news reports, they were in fact paid announcements disguised as journalism. At least two other agencies have used fake news reports to trumpet their achievements as well. There are always gray areas in relations between politicians and journalists, but a $241,000 payment, or an ad designed to look like an authentic news report, is black and white.
Covert propaganda is more than unethical; it is against the law for taxpayer dollars to be used "for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States," unless approved by Congress. Congress should investigate, as this administration does not seem to understand the lines it has crossed.