When Rod Paige was U.S. secretary of education he made about $170,000 a year. Radio and television commentator Armstrong Williams made $240,000 for telling taxpayers what a wonderful job Paige was doing.
Apples and oranges, right? If only.
USA Today reports that the Bush administration paid Williams that whopping sum to regularly hold forth on the No Child Left Behind Act and to periodically interview Paige. Williams was also encouraged to recruit other black journalists to do the same. The administration wanted to increase support for its education policies among African Americans.
Taxpayers never knew that their money financed this payola commentary.
Armstrong explained his actions by saying, “I wanted to do it because it’s something I believe in.” Well, yeah. That’s the whole reason he was hired. But there are a lot of people paying for this who don’t believe in it, and they’re going to be hopping mad when they find out. Because of the controversy, Tribune Media Services ceased distribution of a weekly newspaper column Williams wrote.
The revelation about Williams comes on the heels of a federal report showing that the administration produced propaganda about its efforts to combat drug abuse and then shipped it off to television stations in the guise of news reports. Professional journalists were hired to give the reports an authentic feel.
It doesn’t end there. The administration also produced fake news reports to tout the new prescription drug program for Medicare. Last May, Congress’ investigative arm, the Government Accountability Project, said these videos violated laws against covert propaganda.
According to the Washington Post, one of the anti-drug videos came with a script for an anchor to read. The script ends with the anchor saying, “Mike Morris has more.” Morris is a TV journalist hired to play himself in the video.
The administration and the broadcasters who played along ought to be ashamed. Regardless of whether actual laws were violated, such actions are a serious ethical breach.
In the instances of fake news reports, the administration says it was the responsibility of broadcasters to identify the material as paid announcements. That’s certainly true, but there’s no excuse for producing such deceptive materials in the first place.
The president and his many officers have many avenues for delivering news to the American people. There is no need for an American Pravda. Manufacturing positive news reports and glowing commentary is an abuse of tax dollars and an insult to our open democratic society.
Since the public is bankrolling this nonsense, it has a right to know how many other journalists are on the payroll and who they are. It also has a right to know if such nonsense persists.
Local journalism is essential.
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