Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) has denounced the Bush administration for
paying conservative radio commentator and columnist Armstrong Williams $240,000
"to skew his reporting to promote the No Child Left Behind Act."
In a letter co-signed Jan. 7 by Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid of Nevada
and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Lautenberg said the money paid to Williams
should be recovered by the administration, and that President George W. Bush
should disclose if any other journalists were paid to promote presidential
Lautenberg, Reid and Kennedy said the payment to Williams may have violated laws
against "covert propaganda," and added, "we believe that the act
of bribing journalists to bias their news in favor of government policies
undermines the integrity of our democracy. Actions like this were common
in the Soviet Union, but until now, thought to be long extinguished in our
Asked about the payments—first disclosed in
a Jan. 7 article by Greg Toppo in USA Today—presidential press
secretary Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to
Clinton Township, Michigan, that the decision to pay Williams was made by the
Education Department, not the White House. A reporter noted that the
General Accounting Office also had found that the Office of Drug Policy broke
federal law by paying for "covert propaganda story packages."
McClellan said he thought the drug policy office "had stopped doing
it...and we think those were appropriate steps to take," but he sidestepped
the question about Williams.
USA Today quoted Williams, a former aide to U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Clarence Thomas, as saying he promoted the "No Child Left Behind"
educational initiative because "it's something I believe in."
According to MSNBC, the $240,000 contract developed by the Ketchum Incorporated
public relations agency called upon the Williams-owned company, the Graham
Williams Group, to create commercials to be read by Education Secretary
Rod Paige about the program, and also for Williams to interview Paige and other
Education Department officials on his show. Furthermore, Williams was to
use his influence with other African-American journalists to win support for the
Williams told the Associated Press on Jan. 7 that while he was a commentator,
not a journalist, "I feel I should be held to the media ethics
standard. My judgment was not the best. I wouldn't do it again, and I
learned from it."
Lautenberg, Kennedy and Reid, in their letter, said "good government means
that our citizens can trust that government policies put the public's interest
first. We don't need 'payola' and public relations to educate our kids. We need
good teachers, good schools and good standards."
—Donald H. Harrison