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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

This columnist is not up for sale

Leonard Pitts Jr. Miami Herald

This is mean of me, so I apologize in advance.

It’s just that, once in a while when I’ve written something that offends their sensibilities, certain of my readers will undertake to steer me toward conservative pundits who might correct my misconceptions. What’s interesting is they never suggest white conservatives. No George Will or Cal Thomas.

These folks invariably feel my role model should be some conservative who is black like me. Armstrong Williams usually makes the list. So I find myself wondering if they still think he’s someone I should emulate.

That is, now that he has been unmasked as a paid shill for the Bush administration.

Like I said, mean. Also, off the point.

The things that should concern us about the Williams debacle actually have little to do with the shopworn issues of race and political orientation. Rather, the episode is emblematic of two other issues that have become rather shopworn themselves in recent years: journalistic integrity and the Bush administration’s habit of strong-arming reality.

Let’s take the last first.

As reported by USA Today, Williams was paid more than 240,000 of your dollars by the Education Department to promote the No Child Left Behind law to black people. The department apparently assumed – based on what, I couldn’t say – that Williams has some pull in the black community.

Granted, every political administration seeks to spin the truth. But has any ever worked quite so energetically to propagandize the people, to subvert their right to know? Has any ever been so dismissive of their right to unvarnished facts? If so it’s news to me.

Under the present administration, facts are routinely varnished like fine wood. That is, when they are not ignored outright. Consider the record. Where official reports have clashed with politics, they have been edited. Where science has offended political supporters, it has been quashed. Where the administration’s own experts have contradicted its worldview, they have been ignored.

And henceforth, I suppose, where journalists are for sale, they will be bought.

Which brings us back to journalistic integrity or the lack thereof. Between this, CBS News, Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley, who can blame a journalist for feeling that maybe it’s time to find a more reputable profession? Like used-car sales. But what gets me is that where CBS was motivated by zeal and, I think, partisanship, where Blair was a substance abuser and where Kelley apparently sought to aggrandize himself, Williams was in it for the money.

He talked up No Child in his column, on his radio and television programs and in appearances on various public affairs programs but somehow never mentioned that he was accepting payola to do so. Williams, who also owns a small public-relations firm, says that when the contract was offered, he was simply thinking like a businessman.

It’s becoming an occupational hazard as more and more income opportunities open up to high-profile journalists. I speak as one of the at-risk. Writing this column has lead to speaking engagements, teaching positions and book contracts I could never have envisioned when I started it 11 years ago.

I won’t lie to you: With apologies to Jimmy Stewart, it’s a wonderful life. But the first day I don’t understand that it is an ethical crime to rent this podium to the highest bidder, somebody please take me out in a field and shoot me because I have become too stupid to live.

Metaphorically speaking, that’s pretty much what has happened to Williams. Tribune Media Services, which distributed his column (as it does mine), dropped him like a hairy spider right after the story broke.

To his credit, he has expressed regret forthrightly. He says he simply never saw himself as a journalist.

I think he’s sincere. I also think it doesn’t matter. The line he crossed is red neon. And once you’ve gone over it, you can’t go back.

So as for not thinking of himself as a journalist, he needn’t worry. No one will ever mistake him for one again.