As seen on Black America Web…

Pundit Payola Scandal Costs Williams His Column, Show and More

Date: Monday, January 10, 2005
By: Bobbi Booker//BlackAmericaWeb.com


Black media and political veterans alike are still reeling from last week’s revelations that Black pundit Armstrong Williams was paid nearly a quarter of a million dollars by the Bush administration to push its controversial educational initiative, No Child Left Behind – a conflict of interest scandal that has cost the conservative commentator in more ways than one. When USA Today disclosed on Friday that the Education Department, through the Ketchum Inc. public relations company, paid Williams $241,000 to help promote President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” policy on his radio show, TV program and newspaper column, sparks began flying immediately in both media and political institutions. Congressional Democrats and Republicans have joined in calling for inquiries into the matter.Williams has since publicly apologized for his “bad judgment” and has called the criticism “legitimate.” “I made a business decision and did not consider the implication for me as a media pundit and commentator, so it’s come back to bite me,” Williams told BlackAmericaWeb.com. Although Tribune Media Services (TMS) has accepted his explanation that the monies were for his radio and television shows, they immediately cancelled Williams’ weekly syndicated column.“Accepting compensation in any form 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,” read a statement released by the TMS Friday. “Under these circumstances, readers may well ask themselves if the views expressed in his columns are his own, or whether they have been purchased by a third party.” Williams also made regular appearances on CNN, and the network has now launched an investigation into the commentator’s statements. “We will consider very seriously this issue before booking him as a guest again,” CNN spokeswoman Megan Mahoney told Associated Press.The Education Department defended its decision in an AP report as a “permissible use of taxpayer funds under legal government contracting procedures.” The point was to help parents, particularly in poor and minority communities, understand the benefits of the law, the department said.According to AP, a contract required Williams’ company, the Graham Williams Group, to produce radio and TV spots featuring one-minute “reads” by then-Education Secretary Rod Paige, and to allow Paige and other department officials to appear as studio guests with Williams. Paige and Williams appeared twice on “The Steve Harvey Morning Show,” which originates in Los Angeles and is syndicated in Dallas.“I was under so much pressure in the last two days, I haven’t spoken on that issue,” Williams told BlackAmericaWeb in response to questions about Harvey’s involvement. “The reason why the secretary ended up going on ‘The Steve Harvey Show [was to promote TV One]. In January 2004, TV One debuted, and because I had a show that debuted, they wanted me to set up interviews. “In the course of talking to Steve Harvey, he got into the fact that I was a Republican. And he said, ‘You know, right here in California, they don’t even have books in the classrooms.’ I said, ‘Well, I have a relationship with the Secretary of Education; maybe I can have him come on your show and talk about it.’” “Now that’s my fault,” Williams continued, “because it seems as though I used my influence to get this done, but that’s not what happened. It was in the course of an appearance for TV One that that came about.” TV One has dropped Williams’ show, “On Point,” pending an investigation. Williams said The Steve Harvey Morning Show and 100.3 The Beat in Los Angeles, the station carrying Harvey’s show, received no advertising revenue as a result of Paige’s appearances. Williams also was to use his influence with other Black journalists to get them to discuss No Child Left Behind, a centerpiece of President Bush’s domestic agenda, which aims to raise achievement among poor and minority children and penalizes schools that don’t make progress.The National Association of Black Journalists blasted Williams’ credibility on its website and urged all media outlets that carry his shows to cut their ties with him immediately. “I thought we in the media were supposed to be watchdogs, not lapdogs,” NABJ Vice President-Print Bryan Monroe, assistant vice president-news at Knight Ridder, is quoted as saying on the group’s homepage. “I thought we had an administration headed by a president who took an oath to uphold the First Amendment, not try to rent it.” Williams is not a NABJ member. In fact, prior to USA Today’s report, Williams said, he viewed himself as a solely as commentator and not a journalist. “Nobody listens to Black conservatives. They say we have no audience,” said Williams, “then all of a sudden they treat me as a major journalist in America. I was never invited to be a part of the clubs, to be a part of the membership because they don’t consider us journalists. But now they’ve changed that.”Nationally syndicated columnist Deborah Mathis, a BlackAmericaWeb contributor and regular on “America’s Black Forum” alongside Williams, disputed her colleague’s claim, calling him disingenuous. “I understand that he may not have been trained or practiced in journalism, but there are some things in this sophisticated game that you pick up, and someone should not have to tell anybody about conflicts of interests; they have that in every field,” said Mathis. “One thing this episode does is ratchet up the cynicism about any kind of pundit in the media, and it sure doesn’t help if you’re trying to break from the pack — as Black conservatives are. People already suspect that they’re already speaking for Mr. Charley. When Mr. Charley is paying them, people say, ‘I knew it.’ It hurts not only his credibility; it hurts the credibility of those who are trying to follow in his footsteps and those who are already in the business now.”Mathis feels that this episode has not necessarily marginalized Black journalists or pundits, but it will make Black news viewers even more skeptical of the media messages they receive. “What I despise ultimately is the cynicism of the administration,” Mathis said. “It’s bribery money, it’s walk-around money, it’s whatever else you want to call it, and — as usual — a complete misunderstanding in the reading of the Black community to think that you can go and throw money at one person, and not even understand Williams’ esteem in the Black community. They think he’s all that; we don’t. He doesn’t have the following in the Black community, but he’s been able to present himself as someone who does, and because they do not know us, they can fall for someone coming up to them saying, ‘I’m the spokesperson; I can deliver them,’ because they don’t bother to know us.” The sense is, experts attest, that there is a growing public distrust of the media, where the line of news and opinion have become so blurred, it is practically impossible to decipher the legitimate journalist from the talking head. On Sunday’s “Meet The Press,” host Tim Russert asked, “How do people know the difference between journalists, commentators, pundits, who’s on the take from the government and who is not? This is very confusing.” Even Renee Amoore, the first Black female to co-chair the Pennsylvania Republican Committee, was under the impression that Williams was a journalist. “I’ll be honest. Because I read his newsletter and some other things, I made the assumption that he was a journalist, too. I know Armstrong is on television and [has appeared on] several panels, and he has strong opinions on several things as a Black conservative.” But Amoore feels Williams has been unfairly targeted because of his political views. “The bottom line is that the press tends to hype things up around African-Americans in particular, and now it’s African-American Republicans,” she told BlackAmericaWeb. “I know that it’s happened to me as a Black woman who happens to be a Republican. I think people tend to sensationalize things when it’s a Black conservative, especially with President Bush in office right now.”Williams, 45, a former aide to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, first came to the public’s attention as a spokesperson during the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings when Professor Anita Hill charged Thomas with sexual harassment. Williams has since gone on to become one of the top Black conservative voices in the nation. In addition to his op-ed columns, he hosts “The Right Side” on TV and radio, while running his public relations firm.“No one can ever pay me for what I believe in,” Williams said. “In fact, when we cut the commercial reels for these ads, Ketchum called us back to tell us there were problems with the contract. It appeared as though it would not go forward, but we already had the ads running. I said, ‘It doesn’t matter; I believe in it.’ I was already advocating it before [Ketchum] ever approached us, and so we’ll do it for free. A little over a month later, Ketchum came back to us and said the glitches had been worked out.” Initially, the ads — which started running in December 2003 and continue through to the end of this month — were only scheduled to run for six months. Williams says a special website set up for his show’s viewers logged over 15 million visits, and the amount of traffic convinced the company to extend its contract with Graham Williams for another six months. “That’s why when people say to me, ‘Are you going to pay the money back?’ I say, ‘Are you crazy?’ We delivered. We did what was expected of us. Even the Department of Education issued a statement saying we did a terrific job, and we did. This is business! No one has ever said that [Graham Williams] did not honor its contractual obligation. They’re just saying I crossed the line being a media pundit and a corporate executive. “I’m glad that the market place has said to me, ‘You’ve done something wrong, and these are the consequences.’ I take responsibility; I’m not passing the buck. When you build something from your hand, from the ground up, you know how to build it better again. I am wiser. I understand what is expected of me. I understand that I’m not some shrill media person out here on the air. I am a part of the media elite. And you haven’t seen nothing yet.”But the questions have only just begun. Mathis speculates that Williams is just one of many journalists-as-pundits receiving some form of government payola. “A lot of us,” she said, “have suspected for a long time that Williams and a lot of other people have been taken care of for carrying the message.”

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