Join 3,418 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


U.S. Govermnet Bribing Journalists
January 8, 2005 7:50 PM   Subscribe

Administration Paid Commentator (WashPost membership rqd) The Education Department paid commentator Armstrong Williams $241,000 to help promote President Bush's No Child Left Behind law on the air, an arrangement that Williams acknowledged yesterday involved "bad judgment" on his part. I'm sure y'all check the Washington Post regularly, but isn't this simply bribing a journalist?
posted by punkbitch (44 comments total)

 
More than simply bribing a journalist, it is using our tax money to influence our thoughts in a less than honest and forthright fashion. We should not allow our officials to pay for propaganda to deceive us regarding matters of governance.
posted by ahimsakid at 7:54 PM on January 8, 2005


Before the flamewar starts...

Journalist and commentator aren't the same thing. We expect bias from commentators, not from journalists. Armstrong Williams is a known conservative commentator. His show is called "The RIGHT Side". It's not like they paid off Dan Rather.

Further, the agreement was not to change his opinion (he's pretty dyed-in the-wool conservative), but rather to have him comment about NCLB more frequently.

I'm not saying it's a good idea, but saying to examine it in the right context. Make all the slippery slope arguments you care to, but remember that we're still at the top of the slope.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 8:01 PM on January 8, 2005


More information on this here.
posted by Turtle at 8:03 PM on January 8, 2005


While he may have been willing to support the administration regardless, paying him to more frequently tout education policy is tantamount to bribery. It amounts to payola - an illegal practice, though I'm not sure it applies here by strict definition.
posted by aladfar at 8:09 PM on January 8, 2005


aladfar - I definitely agree. I was just trying to head off some of the "OMFG! BU$H IS EVIL AND PROPAGANDA!" stuff.

Here's a legitimate question for you - if I'm (say) an opponent of NCLB would it be ethical for me to pay a commentator who is already opposed to it to talk about his opposition to it more frequently?
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 8:14 PM on January 8, 2005


I'm surprised that so much of the vitriol has been aimed at Williams. I'm more concerned about the government using tax dollars to pay a commentator to promote a controversial policy than I am about the commentator accepting it.

Is this actually common practice, on the part of the government? I can think of other instances where a government policy is being promoted through paid advertising, like the anti-drug ads and other PSA's. But in those cases, it's more or less directly stated that the government has created the ads.
posted by Chanther at 8:42 PM on January 8, 2005


Devil: Not if you're using my tax dollars.
posted by fungible at 8:42 PM on January 8, 2005


I don't think our tax money should be used as a reward/payment to individuals who promote a specific bias toward a government program.


Armstrong Williams is a well-known conservative "commentator", and he was likely going to support NCLB if the government didn't give him 1/4 million of our tax dollars. I don't think that this should be considered a bribe, but a reward for towing the party line. If there is evidence that Williams was going to make negative comments before accepting the money, then I would consider it a bribe (and still a waste of our tax money).

I still say that it is unethical to reward a commentator to increase the frequency of comments regarding a specific agenda.
posted by dfx at 8:49 PM on January 8, 2005


OMFG! BU$H IS EVIL AND PROPAGANDA!
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:50 PM on January 8, 2005


Is this actually common practice, on the part of the government? I can think of other instances where a government policy is being promoted through paid advertising, like the anti-drug ads and other PSA's. But in those cases, it's more or less directly stated that the government has created the ads.

Prime-time propaganda : How the White House secretly hooked network TV on its anti-drug message: A Salon special report.... so yeah secret payola has been done by the government before.
posted by bobo123 at 8:57 PM on January 8, 2005


This is an especially egregious example, but the practice seems to have predated the Bush administration.

From today's New York Times:
[P]ublic relations executives said that the government distribution of prepared news segments without on-air disclosures of their origin was a bipartisan practice that predated the Bush administration.

"The Clinton administration was probably even more active than the Bush administration" in distributing news segments promoting its policies, said Laurence Moskowitz, chairman and chief executive of Medialink, a major producer of promotional news segments. After the Government Accountability Office decision last spring, he said, his firm began advising government clients to disclose each tape's nature in its script.
posted by enrevanche at 9:01 PM on January 8, 2005


fungible - I got that. I'm in agreement with you. But I was asking would it be right for the ACLU to pay off Brian Williams to talk about how important free speech is? I know it's not using your tax dollars, but I'm really unclear if it is just as morally bad for a private group to do the same thing.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 9:10 PM on January 8, 2005


Williams acknowledged yesterday involved "bad judgment" on his part.

in an unrelated case, Willims admitted it was bad judgement on his part to have forcibly raped his 9 nine-year-old babysitter.

posted by quonsar at 9:18 PM on January 8, 2005


I know it's not using your tax dollars, but I'm really unclear if it is just as morally bad for a private group to do the same thing.

I think the problem is that a lot of people still think that "news " broadcast to them is nonpartisan.

Of course, it's not. But, enough people believe it to make both the overt and covert sponsorship of commentary/journalism really frightening.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:20 PM on January 8, 2005


No journalist/commentator/opinionhead should accept money for writing/talking about an issue or product without fully disclosing that arrangement in said piece. Period. Doesn't matter where the money's coming from, it's an ethical issue for the press and he deserved to be fired by his syndicator (which he was last night.)

The fact that this is the 3rd time we know of that this has been done by the administration (see previous instances re: Medicare and perscription drug plan) makes me think a) there's a whole lot more we don't know about and b) that even after getting spanked twice, they have no intention of stopping because no one will stop them (or so they think.)

And yes, previous administrations may have done it -- I would have been pissed no matter who it was. People distrust the press more and more and people like Williams are one reason why it's hard to regain that trust.

Disclaimer: No one paid me to write this, but in a former life I was a journalist.
posted by ltracey at 9:21 PM on January 8, 2005


But I was asking would it be right for the ACLU to pay off Brian Williams to talk about how important free speech is? I know it's not using your tax dollars, but I'm really unclear if it is just as morally bad for a private group to do the same thing.

It depends on whether or not he acknowledged he was being paid for it. I think it would be either way, honestly, but I have no idea why you care--it's not analgous at all to what we're talking about.

I was just trying to head off some of the "OMFG! BU$H IS EVIL AND PROPAGANDA!" stuff.

Are you suggesting it's only propaganda if the person puting out the propaganda doesn't support it? That seems a little foolish to me. Williams' support for the program is, in my mind, irrelevant to what appears to be illegal bribery using taxpayer money.
posted by The God Complex at 9:23 PM on January 8, 2005


(pardon my typo.)
posted by ltracey at 9:23 PM on January 8, 2005


TGC - I don't think there is anybody in MeFi who would really support what the Education Department did in this case. By "BU$H IS EVIL AND PROPAGANDA" I just meant that turning MeFi into a collective wanfest over just how bad the administration is doesn't do anything particularly productive. Now, I'm not opposed to the occasional circle-jerk, but sometimes it tends to get out of hand. Maybe the comment was out-of-line or would have been better suited for MeTa. See the recent threads on MeTa about blaming the administration for everything.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 9:28 PM on January 8, 2005


Yeah, I understand what you're saying, but in the case of this administration I'm not sure if it's even possible to be too ardently opposed to the things that they do, especially when you consider the media's rather inept role in detailing the events. Moreover, in this case we seem to have a fairly serious breech of both ethical guidelines and possibly the law--of course, I'm sure very little will come out of this, but you have to wonder why.
posted by The God Complex at 9:30 PM on January 8, 2005


What everyone else said.

Really, it's reasonable to assume that any modern administration is going to have to do a little PR work. If they want to get anything done, they're going to have to try to channel information to the media and get their points across. But this is just disgusting. It's like those movie companies that pay for positive reviews (only it's about something that actually matters, and it's using MY money to do it.)

The real question is, how many other "commentators" are getting in on this action? It's always been a mystery why conservative pundits are so damn loyal and always toe the company line.
posted by fungible at 9:37 PM on January 8, 2005


it is using our tax money to influence our thoughts

Heh. Not -my- tax money.
O Canada..
posted by Count Ziggurat at 9:39 PM on January 8, 2005


Yes, this is payola, and yes, someone should get convicted for bribing a journalist.
posted by bshort at 9:47 PM on January 8, 2005


Prepared news statements, Public Service Announcements, and courting the press are all SOP for government officials, record labels, drug companies, etc. Though these practices are annoying, they're not at all illegal.

However, paying off radio and television stations to promote a particular policy/band/medication - be it with private or (especially) public money - is unethical and generally illegal. This would be the case regardless of who was involved. While we here at MeFi might not be as outraged if the ACLU was paying off Terry Gross, it'd be just as wrong.

This is why drug companies throw posh parties for doctors rather than simply write them checks. It also explains why record labels will go through "independent promoters" to court program directors rather than paying them directly.

And lest anyone involved claim ignorance, there can be no doubt that the administration and Mr. Williams knew what they were getting into. It's the first thing that's drilled into your head when you get involved in any kind of media production.

A side note: Sometimes organizations try to get around these constraints by creating an advertisement that looks like a proper television program or newspaper column. In these cases, you will almost always see some fine print indicating it as a "special advertising section" or something similar. It's slimy, and comes very close to the line of what's illegal, but still allowed under the law. From what I've read, Mr. Williams offered no such disclaimer.
posted by aladfar at 10:10 PM on January 8, 2005


You're all missing out on the real fun of Armstrong Williams's sexual harassment settlement with a man who accused him of 50 acts of groping etc.
posted by inksyndicate at 10:38 PM on January 8, 2005


Open and Transparent Accounting would catch this kind of tax dollar malfeasance
posted by rough ashlar at 10:57 PM on January 8, 2005


The Clinton administration was probably even more active than the Bush administration" in distributing news segments promoting its policies

Grrr. Why is this quote in the NYT article at all since it is a vague assertion with no concrete examples? At some point, the Clinton-did-it-too game that the media allows to create some phony fairness or misguided equivalence puts up a smoke screen that does not serve the best public interests... you take to task the administration you have.

There is a world of difference between this squishy non-specific allegation of "distributing" news segments and actually paying a journalist-type for news segments, and therein lies the rub. Clinton was pursued with a Queeg-like zeal over a blowjob. He was pilloried for the price of his haircuts, for heaven's sake. If his pursuers could have hung something as substantive as payola around his neck, I'm sure they'd have have had a field day.
posted by madamjujujive at 11:17 PM on January 8, 2005


The Government Accountability Office has ruled twice now that the Bush administration violated covert propaganda rules, recently for anti-drug propaganda and previously for propaganda in support of Bush's Medicare changes. It looks to me like the Williams incident will make for a third instance of covert propaganda. I can't find any similar rulings from the Clinton years, but someone please point them out if you find them.

Both GAO rulings dealt with the use of Video News Releases (VNRs), and, oh, the PR firm that contracted Williams was originally hired to produce VNRs for No Child Left Behind. The beauty of VNRs is that they are fed by satellite to local TV stations, and usually contain everything a news producer might need for a story: Interviews, b-roll, and even a fully reported segment. Since it's easier and cheaper to use taped footage than to hire someone to report an original story, many local television news operations will run VNRs unattributed and without factchecking. (At least that's the way it was at the station where I once worked. After I learned to spot a VNR, I saw them all over the dial.)

Most VNRs are blatantly commercial. They'll pose some whodathunkit survey then slip some product mentions in. I guess it's fitting that the Bush administration is using VNRs to warm people up to unpopular legislation. There's a fair chance they wouldn't buy this shit if they had all the details.

As for Williams, it's true that news commentators aren't held to the same expectations as reporters, but they aren't free from all journalistic ethics. Yes, we expect commentators sometimes to take partisan positions in favor of the administration, but we also expect that they've arrived at their opinions honestly or at least through their own will. Williams should be drummed out of the press like the hack he is.
posted by eatitlive at 12:40 AM on January 9, 2005


Honestly, if this happened in Canada, the government would be over as soon as the House of Commons next met. A non-confidence vote would simply end it. I am disgusted by how little corruption matters in the US. In Canada, even a predecessor's comparatively minor corruption can potentially doom a government. Paul Martin's days may well be numbered because of Chretien's cronyism despite his lack of involvement or knowledge of it, and his huge popularity due to his excellent fiscal management as finance minister.

The presidency in the US seems by comparison to have become an office of personality cult. It's positively frightening.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 3:10 AM on January 9, 2005


What really sucks about this fiasco that just like the perscription reform bill this administration is determined to continue to use misinformation and lies to get its agenda passed.

NCLB is a wonderful idea but when the president said that it would cost 40billionto pull off and he only allocates 20 billion how can anuone expect it to be anything but a failure?

the heart of NCLB is to make schools accountable for their students success of failure. So a school fails, are they given new tools or resources to make improvements? No they are told fix the problem with the same teachers , the same administration, the smae books , the same buildings and the same parents and kids. So since all the elements in this equation are the same the schools still suck and the kids are still doing poorly. So NCLB closes down the school sends kids to differnt schools and in a year or two the school will reopen with a different set of all of the above.
Paying Williams to htpe this is alot different that paying th ACLU to hype free speach because one is a government program that is paid for with our taxes, and the other is a right promised to us in our constitution.

For an administration that was elected to be spendthrift and to cut out the waste and pork this expenditure reeks.
posted by wonway at 4:23 AM on January 9, 2005


The difference, incidentally, between the Clinton administration "ads" and the Bush ones: the Clinton ones said they were paid for by the government, the Bush ones (the ones the GAO declared illegal) tried to pass themselves off as actual news reports, with no sponsorship information.
posted by hank_14 at 4:49 AM on January 9, 2005


Out of curiosity, is there precedent for taxpayers suing the government for something along these lines? Or is it chalked up to "bad judgment" on everyone (involved)'s part and "voting 'em out" is the strategy of enforcement?
posted by Alt F4 at 6:37 AM on January 9, 2005


it is using our tax money to influence our thoughts

Heh. Not -my- tax money.
O Canada..


Just wait until Martin announces support for the US's missle defence program. Then see whose tax dollars get spent influencing our thoughts...
posted by 327.ca at 7:39 AM on January 9, 2005


Get ready for the big publicity bash to be launched by Bush & Co. to convince Americans that Social Security is in crisis and that private accounts are the only cure.

From the Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004 article, A Big Push on Social Security:

President Bush's political allies are raising millions of dollars for an election-style campaign to promote private Social Security accounts, as Democrats and Republicans prepare for what they predict will be the most expensive and extensive public policy debate since the 1993 fight over the Clinton administration's failed health care plan.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:54 AM on January 9, 2005


Yes, this is payola, and yes, someone should get convicted for bribing a journalist.


Bwhahahahahahahahaha! *sniff* Oh lord, in a country where nobody has been indicted for outing a covert CIA operative because they didn't like her husband?

This regime is seemingly impossible to indict. Everyone seems to be afraid of them, even those people directly responsible for being the checks and balances in the system.
posted by dejah420 at 8:43 AM on January 9, 2005


What Secret Life of Gravy said. Who have they paid off to try and convince us that Social Security is at a "crisis" and that private accounts are the answer? Who's being paid to warn us about the horrors of trial lawyers?

Josh Marshall has a suggestion where to look:
Everyone has quickly and rightly connected the Armstrong Williams story to earlier instances where the administration used government funds to produce pro-Bush political propaganda. There were the produced for the Department of Education to push the No Child Left Behind Act, similar phony news segments produced for HHS to push the new Medicare law, and the Department of Education ratings system devised to rate how different news outlets ranked on No Child Left Behind act orthodoxy and the Republican party's commitment to education.

But there's something else that links all these instances together. They were all contracted through one PR firm: Ketchum.
posted by pmurray63 at 9:45 AM on January 9, 2005


I wouldn't be surprised to see that blogs will play a role in the social security debate ; imagine what we're likely to see on some very infamous political blog..things like "social security promotes and/or causes homosexuality" or other otrageous notions like "let god sort em out" ..or probably something a lot more sneakier trying to convince people that they're better of in a society without safety net...not realizing they'll be the first to fall.
posted by elpapacito at 11:13 AM on January 9, 2005


Sleazy, sleazy, sleazy.

That said, I don't think it's all that different from the administration's practice of "embedding" reporters elsewhere. They have a pretty long history of manipulating and/or freezing-out the media to suit them. Though I find this story appalling, I don't find it all that shocking.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:29 AM on January 9, 2005


This will fizzle. While the right deftly crafted "rathergate" to reinforce the liberal media chorus, the left will be unable to push this thtrough mainstream media and it will not build steam.
posted by willns at 12:03 PM on January 9, 2005


The Clinton administration was probably even more active than the Bush administration" in distributing news segments promoting its policies

The URL for Josh Marshall, cited above, discusses this claim, including some reasons to disbelieve its source (Laurence Moskowitz, CEO of Medialink).
posted by WestCoaster at 1:50 PM on January 9, 2005


This will fizzle. While the right deftly crafted "rathergate" to reinforce the liberal media chorus, the left will be unable to push this thtrough mainstream media and it will not build steam.

somewhat prophetic. however, things aren't as they were. this story won't fizzle. donuts to dollars.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:51 AM on January 10, 2005


"There are others." David Corn got Armstrong to admit, by mistake, that he's not the only one. Creepy.
posted by fungible at 10:28 AM on January 10, 2005


oops. er, prophetic.

thanks for the followup, fungible. and i thought inksyndicate was joking ...
posted by mrgrimm at 10:40 AM on January 10, 2005


Maggie Gallagher just admitted to taking money from HHS.

I want Novak.
posted by amberglow at 6:04 AM on January 26, 2005


WaPo story
posted by amberglow at 6:06 AM on January 26, 2005


« Older GovTrack.US ......  |  There's a lot to be said for a... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments