Also yesterday, an apparently still confused Education Secretary Rod Paige announced an internal review of his department’s practices on paying pundits to flog Bush Administration initiatives. Speaking about the matter for the first time, Paige apologized for “perceptions and allegations of ethical lapses.” He also said that “all of this has been reviewed and is legal.” Reviewed by whom? Remember, this is the same Rod Paige who defended the Williams payments as a standard "outreach effort" to minority groups. This is the same Rod Paige who appeared opposite Williams on Sinclair Brodacasting's news program, "News Central," to flack for the White House plan.
The department had also paid for a video that was produced to look like a real news story. Congressional investigators said that this approach amounted to "covert propaganda." The action recalls the work of faux-journalist Karen Ryan who in 2004 fronted a series of "video news releases" that promoted Bush’s Medicare drug plan and were broadcast by duped local television newscasters.
And there are other instances of government abuse. Shortly after 9/11, reports emerged that the administration's Office of Strategic Influence was planning to plant false news stories in the international media. While the initiative was halted by the ensuing controversy, OSI's use of information as a tool of war has been assumed by other offices throughout government, according to David Shaw.
Surprisingly, Steve Chapman thinks that the Williams case is unique, that few other journalists are on the take -- selling favorable coverage for taxpayer dollars. "The bigger problem for journalism is that so many pundits have effectively become apologists for one political agenda or the other. What readers often get is not their independent judgment, but their version of the party line." Hopefully, time, and the ongoing investigation by the FCC and others, will determine whether Williams acted alone. Wouldn't it be nice if the White House just told us about the "others?" Are any within the White House press gaggle brave enough to ask?
Williams, for his part, told the AP that he was "concerned about this witch-hunt because I know that I've done nothing wrong, nothing illegal." The fallen pundit, however, did acknowledge that it was an “obvious conflict of interests” to accept the White House’s $240,000 and then support their education policy in his weekly newspaper column. So why hasn’t Williams returned the money to taxpayers? Helen Thomas reports that he has no intention of doing so: When asked about returning the money, Williams responded: "Why would I do that?"