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Fallout Continues Over Payment to Conservative Commentator to Promote No Child Left Behind Law

Fallout Continues Over Payment to Conservative Commentator to Promote No Child Left Behind LawBlack journalists association calls on White House to rebuke Education Department

The National Association of Black Journalists called on the White House earlier this month to rebuke those in the U.S. Department of Education who used taxpayer dollars to pay off conservative commentator Armstrong Williams in an attempt to influence public opinion on administration policy.

According to USA Today and national media reports, public records show the Bush administration paid Williams to promote the No Child Left Behind law to fellow Blacks and to give the education secretary media time.

“He’s lost his credibility,” said NABJ Vice President-Broadcast Barbara Ciara, managing editor-anchor at WTKR-TV in Norfolk, Va. “He’s tainted fruit. And he’s unfairly indicted all commentators who have their own independent opinion, don’t need a script from the administration and don’t need to be paid off.”

Since the story broke, “America’s Black Forum,” the nationally syndicated weekly news broadcast, has terminated its relationship with the conservative pundit.

“Failure to disclose the potential conflict of interest has led to Mr. Williams’ dismissal and has impaired his credibility as a commentator expressing his own views,” said Byron Lewis Jr., president and executive producer for “America’s Black Forum.” “As a respected television program with a 28-year history of presenting news and opinion, maintaining the journalistic integrity of our broadcast is our top priority.” 

In addition, Tribune Media has cancelled Williams’ column.

A company run by Williams was paid $240,000 by the Department of Education. The goal was to deliver positive messages about Bush’s education overhaul, using Williams’ broad reach with minorities.

The deal, which drew a fast rebuke from Democrats on Capitol Hill, is the latest to put the department on the defensive for the way it has promoted Bush’s signature domestic policy.

The contract required Williams’ company, the Graham Williams Group, to produce radio and TV ads that feature one-minute “reads” by Education Secretary Roderick Paige. The deal also allowed Paige and other department officials to appear as studio guests with Williams.

Williams, one of the leading Black conservative voices in the country, was also to use his influence with other Black journalists to get them to talk about No Child Left Behind. The law, a centerpiece of President Bush’s domestic agenda, aims to raise achievement among poor and minority children, with penalties for many schools that don’t make progress.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that the decisions on the practice were made by the Education Department. He did not directly answer when asked whether the White House approved of the practice, saying it was a department matter.

The Education Department defended its decision as a “permissible use of taxpayer funds under legal government contracting procedures.” The point was to help parents, particularly in poor and minority communities, understand the benefits of the law, the department said.

Williams called criticism of his relationship with the department “legitimate.” On his Web site he apologized to his readers.

“I understand that I exercised bad judgment in running paid advertising for an issue that I frequently write about in my column. People need to know that my column is uncorrupted by any outside influences,” Armstrong said. “I accept full responsibility for my lack of good judgment. I am paying the price. Tribune Media has cancelled my column. And I have learned a valuable lesson. I just want to assure you that this will never happen again, and to ask for your forgiveness,” he concluded.

Three Democratic senators — Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Harry Reid of Nevada — wrote Bush earlier this month to demand he recover the money paid to Armstrong. Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House education committee, asked for an inspector general investigation into whether the deal was legal and ethical. The Republican chairman of the committee, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, supported the request.

Miller and other Democrats also wrote Bush to call for an end to “covert propaganda.” 

By staff and news wire reports

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