Armstrong Williams: tip of the iceberg?

Published January 15, 2005 12:35AM (EST)

A week into the controversy over the Department of Education's $240,000 buyout of conservative pundit Armstrong Williams, Secretary of Education Rod Paige has entered the fray.

"Over the past week," Paige writes in a Education Dept. press release, "it has been reported that the Department of Education used the communications services of a nationally known commentator to inform the public about the No Child Left Behind law.

"The funds for the Graham Williams Group's services went exclusively toward the production and airtime of advertisements in which I described the law and encouraged viewers and listeners to call the Department's toll-free information line. The funds covered those costs alone and nothing more."

That, apparently, is how one politely cops to paying off a pundit. But an article in USA Today -- which obtained a copy of the agreement between the two parties using a Freedom of Information Act request -- shows that Paige's explanation isn't right. The contract between the Department of Education and Williams stipulated that he "comment regularly on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts' and 'encourage the producers' of a cable TV program, America's Black Forum, to do the same." In other words, while Paige insists that the Department simply bought $240,000 worth of ads, the Department's own contract clearly proves that it paid for a piece of Williams.

Meanwhile, the CEO of Ketchum Public Relations, the PR firm which arranged for the Williams contract, has published a column in PR Week insinuating that Williams may be far from the only commentator on the take:

"On the surface, Williams' unusual role as both a pundit and information source -- through his ad-production firm -- would seem to blur the lines that once so clearly defined journalism and news organizations.

"Now, while our industry could never unanimously pinpoint the moment when this blurring began, every one of us would surely agree that the meshing grows with each passing day Infotainment goes head-to-head with edutainment, sportscasters double as product pitchmen, and paid political advisors double as paid political pundits.

"Though Ketchum is currently under the microscope, the PR industry at large is about to be viewed through a telescope. For starters, a public-interest group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to 22 government agencies, including all cabinet agencies, requesting copies of all contracts with PR firms."

If CCRE's requests turn up half as much as Ray Kotcher's op-ed suggests they might, more talking heads may roll. And if the Freedom of Information Act doesn't do it, then maybe the FCC's newly launched investigation will.

By Jeff Horwitz

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