Saturday, January 08, 2005

Armstrong Williams : Conflicts of Interest

Have you been following the Armstrong Williams saga that's developed over the past 24 - 48 hours? In a nutshell, Williams is an African American conservative commentator - his syndicated televison show airs in quite a few markets, apparently (though I've never watched it).

Turns out he's been accepting payola from the Department of Education to shill the No Child Left Behind Act in the black community - to the tune of about a quarter million dollars. You may already be familiar with the background of the controversy, but just in case, this from USA Today:

Seeking to build support among black families for its education reform law, the Bush administration paid a prominent black pundit $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same.

The campaign, part of an effort to promote No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required commentator Armstrong Williams "to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts," and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004.

Well, as time has marched on over the past day or so, the distributor of his syndicated show has dropped him like a hot potato. Good on them. The conflict of interest is certainly very clear - and if Bob Vila can get dropped from "This Old House" for shilling Craftsman tools, certainly a political commentator can get dropped for accepting money to push a point of view under the guise of personal commentary.

Conservative or liberal, all appearance of independent thought falls by the wayside when stuff like this bubbles up from the shadows into the light of day. And it makes you ask the question: how many other "commentators" are being paid by government agencies to spin a particular message?

I have a gut feeling that Williams is just the first one outted (for whatever reason; perhaps he pissed off the wrong person). If we take a tinfoil hat view of this controversy, consider that he's a relatively small fish in a big pond.

While a lot of blogs have commented extensively on le affaire de Armstrong in the past day or so (with progressive African American blogger Steve Gilliard leading the way and taking a lot of flack), no one seems to be asking the most important question. The outting of Williams by conservative operatives was clearly a horse head under the sheets to someone else of more significant stature.