Saturday, January 08, 2005

No payout left behind

I heard about this via The Al Franken Show on Air America Radio while driving around town yesterday. (Ann Arbor's WLBY - 1290 AM - is thankfully one of Air America's 41 affiliates. How about an Iowa City affiliate, guys? That's a nice liberal college town stuck in a red state.) Syndicated talk show host and newspaper columnist Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 by the Bush administration to endorse the No Child Left Behind act to his audience. Williams was also asked to persuade other black journalists and media personalities to promote NCLB, as he did with comedian Steve Harvey, who had Education Secretary Rod Paige on his show.

Arm$trong William$

Quoted in USA Today, Williams said he accepted the payment to promote NCLB "because it's something I believe in."

Well, if you already believe in it, Armstrong, why did you need to take $240,000 to extol its virtues?

Even worse, according to Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington - also quoted in the USA Today article - is that "Congress has prohibited propaganda" for any government-funded program. Lobbying for anything that taxpayers are footing the bill for, such as No Child Left Behind, is illegal.

I assumed this would be a topic du jour at Jim Romenesko's blog (via the Poynter Institute), which always discusses all things media. And to no surprise, at the top of the page was the news that Tribune Media Services, in lieu of this revelation, had decided to stop distributing Williams's syndicated newspaper column.

"Accepting compensation in any form," said a press release from Tribune Media Services, "from an entity that serves as a subject of his weekly newspaper columns creates, at the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest."

Now, I'm betting that this isn't a big deal to the general public. And maybe most of you reading this don't really give a $#!+ about someone in the media accepting handouts, especially if it's someone you've never heard of. But as a former journalism major, this really bothers me. Off the top of my head, I can think of two cardinal sins for a journalist: 1) Plagiarizing material, a la Jayson Blair or Mike Barnicle, and 2) Accepting money from any organization other than an employer.

Of course, there's a question as to whether Armstrong Williams is even a journalist. He's a talk show host and a columnist. How much actual reporting or investigation is part of his job? So is he obligated to the same responsibilities that an actual journalist would be? Maybe not. But if you were to watch Williams's show and he expressed an opinion that you happened to share or agree with, how would you feel if you then discovered that opinion was bought and paid for? Whose opinion is he really expressing?