Pubdate: Thu, 13 Jan 2005
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2005 The Dallas Morning News


Conservative commentator Armstrong Williams abused public trust by turning 
his television show into a clandestine paid advertisement for the 
administration's No Child Left Behind initiative.

It's another embarrassing moment for journalists, but the Department of 
Education shouldn't escape its share of the shame for complicity in this 
latest erosion of public trust.

Mr. Williams' arrangement with the department required him to produce radio 
and television spots with Education Secretary Rod Paige. Mr. Williams also 
was expected to lobby black journalists to support No Child Left Behind.

Make no mistake, Mr. Williams deserves the intense criticism he is 
receiving for his ethical lapse. He became a covert paid spokesman for 
government policy, an arrangement that corrupts the arm's-length 
relationship that should exist between media and government.

And if this was somehow conceived as an outreach to African-Americans, 
paying for black support is mocking, insulting and counterproductive. 
Moreover, the arrangement may violate a law designed to prevent public 
officials from using tax dollars in overt self-promotion.

Department officials insist the contract was a "permissible use of taxpayer 
funds under legal government-contracting procedures." We'll leave it up to 
lawyers to determine whether that's true, but there's a bigger ethical 
issue at stake.

The White House's drug-control policy office previously sent local 
television stations packaged reports on a government campaign to curb drug 
abuse. The problem is that the "reports" looked like an actual 
independently produced newscast and featured a former Washington journalist 
hired by the government. None of that was disclosed.

The Government Accountability Office denounced the administration's 
anti-drug campaign and, in a separate case, criticized other slick 
"reports" in support of the president's Medicare drug benefit as misuses of 
taxpayer money.

The Bush administration is not alone in playing this opinion manipulation 
game. During the Clinton years, drug chief Barry McCaffrey secretly paid 
television networks to promote an anti-drug message in the scripts of 
television shows.

It's understandable and necessary that government's message is heard. But 
it's corrupting, not informing, to disingenuously wrap its message in 
sheep's clothing.
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