Cox News ServiceQuestions raised about White House efforts to shape newsTue Jan 11, 2005 17:5422.214.171.124
Group FOIA'S Feds Over Propaganda
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... he received $240,000 from the Department of Education through a contract with Ketchum Public Relations, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington ..
Questions raised about White House efforts to shape news
By Eunice Moscoso
Cox News Service
Monday, January 10, 2005
WASHINGTON — Government watchdogs, media groups and lawmakers are raising new questions about White House efforts to shape news coverage after revelations Friday that the administration paid syndicated pundit Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind Act.
The story comes on the heels of an internal government report blasting the Office of National Drug Control Policy for distributing commercials that were broadcast as news reports. The Department of Education also paid a public relations firm to produce commercials last year that were aired by stations across the country as news items.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said that the administration's efforts make her "extremely nervous and uneasy."
"At first I thought it was an aberration, but now — certainly with the Education Department — it appears to be a pattern and I'm definitely wondering who else is on their payroll," she said.
Dalglish said she was "blown away" when she heard that Williams accepted $240,000 through his public relations company to promote the No Child Left Behind Act, a major Bush administration initiative that seeks to boost the performance of poor and minority children and punishes schools that don't show results.
Williams is a prominent black conservative voice in the media, hosting the TV and radio show "The Right Side" and writing op-ed pieces that are distributed by Tribune Media Services to various newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, USA Today and the Washington Times.
The contract, negotiated through a deal between the Department of Education and public relations giant Ketchum Inc., required Williams' firm to produce ads promoting the Act, which were run during his shows.
It also required him to regularly comment on the No Child Left Behind Act during the course of his broadcasts and to urge other black journalists to do the same, according to USA Today, which obtained the contract though a Freedom of Information request.
Williams said Friday that he regretted the contract.
"My judgment was not the best. I wouldn't do it again and I learned from it," he said, in an interview. "There's a thin line. There's a gray area and I think I crossed it."
In addition, he said that although he was a commentator, and not a journalist, he still should abide by the same ethical standards.
Williams also said that he did disclose during his show that the Department of Education was paying for the advertisements that featured Education Secretary Rod Paige. Williams would not say whether he knew of other commentators that held similar contracts with the government.
On Capitol Hill, three senators — including Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada — wrote a letter to the White House demanding that the administration recover the $240,000 from Williams.
The letter, also signed by Sens. Ted Kennedy, D- Mass. and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said the payments violated the law and that the administration's attempt to "bribe journalists to bias their news in favor of government policies undermines the integrity of our democracy."
The senators also ask the White House to disclose if any other journalists or media organizations have been paid to "skew their media reports."
Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee for Education and the Workforce, said the Williams' contract was "deeply disturbing" and called for an investigation into whether it might be in violation of the law or other ethical standards.
Republican Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, chair of the education committee and one of the chief promoters of the No Child Left Behind Act, wants the Department of Education inspector general to look into the contract, said his spokesman Steve Forde.
"If what has been reported is accurate it is certainly indefensible. ...It is an inappropriate use of taxpayer money," said Boehner's spokesman, Steve Forde.
The White House referred questions to the Department of Education.
In a statement, the department said that the contract "paid to provide the straightforward distribution of information about the department's mission" and that it is a "permissible use of taxpayer funds under legal government contracting procedures."
Bob Steele, a scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said that journalists should never be partners with government officials on such efforts and that Williams has created competing loyalties by his contractual, financial obligations.
"It is the role of journalists — and to some degree Armstrong Williams falls within that category — to hold the government and government officials accountable. We should provide meaningful, substantive, fair, accurate and here's the key — independent — reporting on government policies and activities," Steele said.
Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg said that Williams should give the money back.
"I think he should probably be ashamed of himself for taking it. I think the White House really screwed up...all I can say is that if Bill Clinton had gotten caught giving Joe Conason a quarter of a million dollars to be flogging their policies, guys like me would have smoke coming out of our ears, and the right would go crazy," he told CNN.
The Williams' contract is the latest in a series of apparent efforts by the Bush administration to influence media coverage, including:
— The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said on Thursday that the Office of National Drug Control Policy broke federal law when it produced and distributed packaged news segments about drug use among the nation's youth. The GAO said the videos, broadcast by nearly 300 stations, amounted to "covert propaganda" because they were not identified as government-made.
— In a similar case, the GAO scolded the White House in May for creating television news spots that promoted the new Medicare law, which is intended to help older Americans with the costs of their prescription medicines. The segments — in English and Spanish — had actors posing as television reporters.
— Also last year, the Department of Education paid a public relations firm to rate the reporting on the No Child Left Behind Act of writers from 13 newspapers so that those with low scores could be "targeted for doing more education about the issue."
— Television news shows in more than 20 cities last year included a pre-packaged, favorable story about the federal student loan program that wasn't identified as taxpayer-financed. The story was prepared as a "video news release" for the Department of Education by Ketchum, Inc. The firm also prepared a similar story urging parents to ask local school officials whether their child qualified for free tutoring under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the government watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that the Bush administration is showing a pattern of using taxpayer money for propaganda.
Sloan's group plans to submit Freedom of Information requests to various government agencies find out what other pundits and journalists are being paid by the government.
"This is very likely only the tip of the iceberg," she said.
On the Web:
Department of Education: http://www.ed.gov
Armstrong Williams: http://www.armstrongwilliams.com
The Poynter Institute of Media Studies: http://www.poynter.org
Eunice Moscoso's e-mail address is emoscoso(at)coxnews.com
Dayton Daily News reporter Jim Bebbington contributed to this report.
CREW Files FOIAs to Uncover Government Agency Dealings with PR Firms
11 JAN 2005 | In light of recent reports that conservative journalist and pundit Armstrong Williams received $240,000 from the Department of Education (DOE) through a contract with Ketchum Public Relations, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) today has filed a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to 22 government agencies, including all cabinet agencies.
• News Release
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