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."