No pundit left behind

After Armstrong Williams pocketed $240,000 from the Department of Education, he conducted a flattering interview with Education Secretary Rod Paige for Sinclair Broadcasting.

Topics:

Sinclair Broadcasting made headlines last year by aligning itself with partisan, conservative forces and pushing a political agenda. In May, the media conglomerate refused to air “Nightline” when Ted Koppel read aloud the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. (Antiwar propaganda, Sinclair executives claimed.) Then, in late fall, Sinclair pushed forward a one-sided, anti-John Kerry documentary on the eve of the election. In both cases, while ignoring charges of bias, Sinclair bosses seemed to relish their time in the spotlight.

But now Sinclair is getting burned by one of its conservative stars and the media company is running for the shadows. In the wake of news that its on-air mainstay, conservative talk-show host and syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams, pocketed $240,000 from the Department of Education in exchange for hyping a White House education initiative, Sinclair is going out of its way to distance itself from its prime-time pundit. The company has also asked Williams to clear up the misleading impression that it carries his syndicated TV show on dozens of its stations.

“We’re seriously reviewing our relationship” with Williams, says Carl Gottlieb, managing editor of Sinclair’s corporate news division.

Williams, former aide to Strom Thurmond, friend of Clarence Thomas, and full-time public relations executive, was hired in 2003 as a political analyst for Sinclair’s News Central, which creates broadcasts for the company’s 62 local stations across the country. “Armstrong and David Smith are very close,” says a former employee, referring to Sinclair’s conservative CEO. “He’s a huge Armstrong fan and he made him a priority at News Central. Whenever Armstrong needed a crew, we made them available, no questions asked.” Williams returned the favor by applauding Sinclair’s decision to preempt “Nightline’s” Iraq memorial telecast, labeling it in his newspaper column as “little more than a crass attempt to cash in” on ratings.



One of Williams’ first interviews as a Sinclair analyst was with outgoing Secretary of Education Rod Paige, during which time the two talked favorably about No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the education reform law passed by President George W. Bush — and the piece of legislation that the DOE paid Williams $240,000 to promote. Critics have hammered Williams since last Friday, when USA Today broke the story that he used his newspaper column to praise NCLB without informing readers he was on the take. (The column has since been dropped by Williams’ syndicator.) But in retrospect, Williams’ interview with Paige appears to have been even more ethically challenged.

“He was clearly double-dipping,” says one former Sinclair producer. “He was getting paid $240,000 [by the administration] and getting paid as a commentator by Sinclair. When I read the USA Today story on Friday I was aghast, as anybody in this business would be. Then the first thing I thought about was Williams’ interview with Paige and then a light went off.”

The producer recalls the Williams-Paige sit-down as being the “single worst interview I’ve seen in my career. It was nothing but softball questions. In retrospect, it was clearly part of Armstrong’s way of getting paid” by the DOE. (Weeks later, Williams conducted a similar interview with Vice President Dick Cheney, pitching him such easy questions as, “Why do you think the media is so obsessed in trying to tie you to Halliburton?”)

Sinclair managing editor Gottlieb insists that “we knew absolutely nothing about [Williams'] relationship with the Department of Education. Had we known, we wouldn’t have had him commenting on education and perhaps other matters.” Gottlieb says he had a brief conversation with Williams on Friday, noting that Williams’ contract with Sinclair expired late last year. (Williams has appeared on Sinclair channels once since then.) Asked about the company’s reaction to Williams’ DOE pay-for-play, Gottlieb says, “We were not thrilled.”

Sinclair has an additional reason to be upset with the pundit. On a Web site promoting Williams’ syndicated talk show, “On the Right Side With Armstrong Williams,” a minority-focused public affairs program, Sinclair stations are listed as broadcasting the show in 52 markets. Gottlieb says that’s false, that no Sinclair stations carry the program. Williams tells Salon that Sinclair stations were named only because Williams has appeared on them as an analyst.

Since Friday, journalism observers have expressed shock that anybody in such a position of prominence as Williams would accept six figures from the government. The quid pro quo deal clearly crosses an ethical line. “That Williams didn’t tell his audience he was a gun for hire demonstrates the obvious — he should stick to P.R. and not confuse us by claiming to be a commentator in the journalistic tradition,” says Susan Tifft, a Duke University journalism professor.

Williams has repeatedly admitted he used bad judgment in accepting the DOE contract, which called in part for advertising on his television show. But when asked if he would give the $240,000 back, Williams, who charges up to $20,000 for speaking fees, says no. “My business ethics are not in question. I’m comfortable with the fact we delivered in terms of the advertising. That’s why [the DOE] renewed the contract after six months. We delivered.”

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>