Armstrong Williams was paid, but did it really matter?
Have you ever heard of Armstrong Williams? Most haven’t, at least until two weeks ago, when Williams was outed as a paid shill for the Bush administration.Before that, Williams was best known as somewhat of a novelty, a black conservative commentator in the Chicago area, with his own syndicated column as well as a television program and a radio broadcast.The U.S. Department of Education arranged to pay Williams $240,000 of taxpayers’ money to promote the president’s No Child Left Behind education initiative in his column and on television, and to try and convince other black journalists to do the same.Democrats believe they’ve latched onto a saucy scandal and are in search of other arrangements like Williams’ at other federal agencies. Williams is not the first commentator to push a political agenda. Rush Limbaugh and George Will, for example, are both active apologists for and promoters of all things right wing, but their readers know that.Both have worked from time to time as advisers to various Republicans, but their readers know that.
Williams’ national notoriety revolves around the fact he didn’t bother to tell anyone – not his editor, nor his producers nor his listening and reading audience – that he was being paid by the government to promote a particular point of view.Williams has since admitted, too late, that he was wrong not to have disclosed the $240,000 deal, a costly error since the newspaper syndicate that carried his column has dropped him, and his television and radio career is over. But does Williams deserve to have his career ruined?There is certainly a difference between a journalist and a commentator. Journalists, in theory, should present the news in a fair-and-balanced manner with “just the facts, ma’am.” Regular readers of this or any newspaper know that some journalists can be relied upon to focus on one side of an issue at the expense of the other, or focus only on the facts that support their agenda at the expense of equally accurate facts. So, while fair and balanced is a worthy goal, news stories aren’t always fair and balanced, or even accurate, depending on the attention span of the journalist and the intelligence of the editor.
Commentators and columnists are a different breed. Columnists are supposed to have opinions, hopefully informed opinions. Columnists are also duty-bound to stir the pot, to get people to think about the issues of the day, to bring good to light, as well as bad decisions that demand reconsideration. Some readers are quick to pigeon-hole columnists, but it’s a mistake to assume that the argument a columnist is making is one the columnist actually endorses or supports. Sometimes it’s much too tempting and too much fun for a columnist to write things that are sure to inflame. In Williams’ case, he was a supporter of No Child Left Behind even before it was enacted into law, so shilling for the program was not a great leap. It was a curious approach by Ketchum, though, a leading public relations agency, with clients such as Pepsi, Just For Men, the California Dried Plum Board, the Canned Food Alliance and the Department of Education, to try and inform teachers and parents about No Child Left Behind via one newspaper commentator.
So I’ll miss reading Armstrong Williams’ columns. He was interesting, a conservative commentator who tried to break the mold of black-conservatives-as-sellouts stereotype made infamous by Thomas Sowell.I’m sad to admit that I do not have a $240,000 contract to push any government program, although I’m in hopes of a deal with the Bush administration to promote privatizing Social Security in this column and when I’m on talk radio. Of course, I hope to see the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus one day, and take a ride in a gondola from Breckenridge to Peak 7.In the meantime, keep reading your columnists, the ones you like as well as the ones that just make your blood boil. Your arteries will never harden, you’ll always learn something the journalists didn’t tell you, and you’ll always have something to talk about at Clint’s and Abbey’s.Marc Carlisle writes a Thursday column. He can be reached email@example.com.
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