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Armstrong Williams Payoff Just Latest Bush Media Scandal

by Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Bush Medicare Ads Blasted As Deceptive PR

(PNS) -- There can be no defense of syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams' disgraceful grab of public money from the Education Department to tout President Bush's No Child Left Behind law while posing as an objective journalist. But focusing on one man's ethics disaster misses the larger and more important story of the Bush administration's pattern of placing propaganda in U.S. news media.

Williams' contract was part of a $1 million Education Dept. deal with public relations giant Ketchum that produced "video news releases" designed to look like news reports. Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services hired Ketchum to produce videos touting the administration's controversial Medicare plans, also disguized as news segments. Many stations aired the spots with no explanation to viewers that they were watching government propaganda. The Government Accounting Office called the use of taxpayer money for the project illegal, but did not require that the money be repaid.

If a journalist is caught with his or her hands in the government till, newspapers should do what the Tribune Media Services that distributes William's column did and dump him or her. Media outlets should do what CNN said they would do, and determine whether the journalists and commentators they use on their news shows are giving their honest views on issues or are bought and paid pitch men and women for government agencies. If they are they should dump them too.

If Congressional Democrats are as outraged as they say they are about William's media machinations, they will demand that Williams repay the money, (he says he won't), that Bush prohibit government agencies from paying journalists for faking news about their programs, and ferret out any other journalists that have shilled for government agencies.

But don't expect any far-reaching action soon. Williams is a black conservative, and since his tenure as an aide to South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, and later to Clarence Thomas before he became a U.S. Supreme Court justice, he has been a right-wing radio and TV media darling. He and other black conservatives are given free license to say and do whatever they please as long as they faithfully toe the conservative line. That means cheerleading Bush administration policies and bashing blacks, liberals, women's groups and gays. If they do their job well enough, in addition to getting frequent and top billing on talk shows they're guaranteed op-ed spots in mainstream dailies, they may land their own syndicated TV talk show as Williams did and they'll be showered with lucrative book deals and, it seems, dubious government contracts.

Conservatives desperately need blacks such as Williams to maintain the public pretense that black conservatives have real clout and a popular following in black communities. The black conservatives in turn parlay their media-created celebrity to corral other unsuspecting or willing black personalities and journalists into endorsing Bush policies, as Williams did on his talk show. They dangle the prospect that if they play ball, they too can fill their pockets with government goodies.

Their greatest value, though, is that they promote the myth that a big segment of blacks support Bush's policies. In the last election, Republicans spent millions on outreach efforts to African-American voters. They employed Williams, and a handful of other blacks, to loudly tout Bush policies. Yet, Bush got only a marginal bump-up in black support nationally. Even though many blacks, especially black evangelicals opposed gay marriage and abortion, polls still showed the overwhelming majority of them disagreed with Bush's domestic and foreign policies and backed Democrat John Kerry.

Williams is likely to skip away with little more than a spate of bad publicity and a hand slap for another reason. During the past decade, the major networks have shamelessly blurred the line between news and corporate and government infomercials. At the eleventh hour of the presidential campaign, Sinclair Broadcasting announced that it would air a program on its TV stations that falsified the Vietnam War record of Kerry. The Clear Channel Network bankrolled billboards praising Bush, and the gaggle of right-wing talk radio shock jocks blatantly promoted Bush's re-election. The FCC, which has gone berserk over rock stars' foul language and a momentary glimpse of Janet Jackson's breast, has knuckled under and given the media conglomerates free rein to bombard the public daily with partisan political blather.

Democrats and media watchdog groups must fight to stop the networks from blurring the line between legitimate news and paid government infomercials. They can start by demanding that taxpayer's dollars not be used to aid and abet the blurring of that line. That's the larger story in the Williams scandal.

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Albion Monitor January 10, 2005 (

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