Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Williams and the Payola Trail

Earlier this year, USA Today revealed television commentator Armstrong Williams to be a front man for a scheme in which $240,000 in taxpayer money was quietly siphoned from the U.S. Treasury via global PR agency Ketchum Inc so that Williams could sell Bush's controversial education policies to black America during an election year.

Neither Williams nor the Department of Education disclosed these payments to the public. Instead, he flacked for Bush policy in an egregiously dishonest fashion via print, radio, television and online news outlets, including conducting an interview with Education Secretary Rod Paige on Sinclair stations.

Williams maintained he was acting as "an entrepreneur" who had no formal training in journalism. Still, he seemed more than willing to play a journalist on television. He added that the FCC has no jurisdiction over him because he isn't a licensed broadcaster, a statement that seems blind to the FCC's own rules on payola, which state if agents "are paying persons other than the licensee to have records aired, and not disclosing that fact to the licensee, the person making such payments, and the recipient, are subject to fine, imprisonment or both."

In 2004 alone, the Bush administration spent more than $88 million on public relations contracts, drawn from a slush fund that's amassed more than $250 million in tax dollars over the past four years. It's unclear exactly how much public largesse went to create "covert propaganda;" but we know that at least three pr firms quietly received tens of millions of dollars each to deploy faux journalists to flack for the conservative policies favored by the president.

Williams told the media that he intends not to pay back any of the pr money he's received unless forced. Thanks in part to the efforts of Free Press e-activists, the FCC has now promised an investigation of the legality of the Williams transaction under these same anti-payola laws.

Since early January two other pundits on the White House dole have emerged since the USA Today exposé, and Williams himself has publicly indicated that he has "no doubt" that there are others loose in the media machine.

With continued public scrutiny more paid pundits will likely emerge from the dark.

1. Introduction: Ghosts in the Media Machine
2. A Propaganda Slush Fund Courtesy of U.S. Taxpayers
3. Jeff Gannon's White House Maneuver
4. Propagandists on the Pentagon Payroll
5. The Demise of FOIA and the Special Prosecutor

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