Cairo Association of Teachers - Newsletter

CAT Tracks for January 7, 2005

Seems that the administration was determined to "sell" its education plan...

Education Dept. paid commentator to promote law

By Greg Toppo, 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.

Williams said Thursday he understands that critics could find the arrangement unethical, but "I wanted to do it because it's something I believe in."

The top Democrat on the House Education Committee, Rep. George Miller of California, called the contract "a very questionable use of taxpayers' money" that is "probably illegal." He said he will ask his Republican counterpart to join him in requesting an investigation.

The contract, detailed in documents obtained by USA TODAY through a Freedom of Information Act request, also shows that the Education Department, through the Ketchum public relations firm, arranged with Williams to use contacts with America's Black Forum, a group of black broadcast journalists, "to encourage the producers to periodically address" NCLB. He persuaded radio and TV personality Steve Harvey to invite Paige onto his show twice. Harvey's manager, Rushion McDonald, confirmed the appearances.

Williams said he does not recall disclosing the contract to audiences on the air but told colleagues about it when urging them to promote NCLB.

"I respect Mr. Williams' statement that this is something he believes in," said Bob Steele, a media ethics expert at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "But I would suggest that his commitment to that belief is best exercised through his excellent professional work rather than through contractual obligations with outsiders who are, quite clearly, trying to influence content."

The contract may be illegal "because Congress has prohibited propaganda," or any sort of lobbying for programs funded by the government, said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "And it's propaganda."

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said he couldn't comment because the White House is not involved in departments' contracts.

Ketchum referred questions to the Education Department, whose spokesman, John Gibbons, said the contract followed standard government procedures. He said there are no plans to continue with "similar outreach."

Williams' contract was part of a $1 million deal with Ketchum that produced "video news releases" designed to look like news reports. The Bush administration used similar releases last year to promote its Medicare prescription drug plan, prompting a scolding from the Government Accountability Office, which called them an illegal use of taxpayers' dollars.

Williams, 45, a former aide to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is one of the top black conservative voices in the nation. He hosts The Right Side on TV and radio, and writes op-ed pieces for newspapers, including USA TODAY, while running a public relations firm, Graham Williams Group.

Follow-up story posted by CNN...

Columnist axed after taking cash to promote Bush plan

Saturday, January 8, 2005

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Tribune Media Services will stop distributing columns written by conservative commentator Armstrong Williams because he received money to promote President Bush's education programs, the company said.

Meanwhile, the nation's largest African-American journalists' organization has asked other media outlets that use Williams' work to do the same.

Williams confirmed Friday that he received $240,000 from the Department of Education in exchange for promoting No Child Left Behind, the centerpiece of Bush's education agenda. Williams said the payment was merely for advertising time.

The department defended the deal, claiming its public-relations contractor "sought avenues to reach minority parents."

"The contract paid to provide the straightforward distribution of information about the department's mission on No Child Left Behind, a permissible use of taxpayer funds under legal government contracting procedures," according to a department statement.

The National Association of Black Journalists also called on the White House to rebuke the department's employees.

In a statement, the group of 4,000 members called on all broadcast and print media that carry Williams' work or use him as a commentator -- a group that includes CNN -- to "drop him immediately."

"I thought we in the media were supposed to be watchdogs, not lapdogs," said Bryan Monroe, a vice president of the association. "I thought we had an administration headed by a president who took an oath to uphold the First Amendment, not try to rent it."

Williams is African-American, but NABJ said he is not a member of the organization.

Tribune Media Services, which distributes Williams' column, released a statement saying it was dropping him.

"Accepting compensation in any form from an entity that serves as a subject of his weekly newspaper columns creates, at the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest," the company said. "Under these circumstances, readers may well ask themselves if the views expressed in his columns are his own, or whether they have been purchased by a third party."

Williams' failure to notify TMS of his receipt of the payments violates his syndication agreement, the company said.

Williams told CNN Friday that some might feel his actions were unethical, but "it was advertising."

Still, he acknowledged the appearance of impropriety.

Williams said his company taped a one-minute commercial with Education Secretary Rod Paige, and he had two one-minute commercial spots in Williams' shows. He said many of his affiliates do not use paid advertising, instead airing only public service announcements.

"He's lost his credibility," said Barbara Ciara, another vice president of the NABJ. "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."

Follow-up editorial posted by the USA Today...

No, secret payoffs that deceive the public aren't OK

Posted 1/9/2005

President Bush is an eloquent advocate of his 2001 education overhaul known as the No Child Left Behind Act. He calls it the "most dramatic reform in public education in a generation" and a powerful remedy for "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

But lately his administration apparently has concluded that the law needs a harder sell based on deceptive practices. Last week, USA TODAY disclosed that the Department of Education had paid conservative pundit Armstrong Williams $240,000 to tout the measure on his syndicated talk show and to periodically interview Education Secretary Rod Paige.

Williams promptly received a harsh education in the propriety of taking the government's money while feigning independence. He was widely criticized, and the syndicate that distributes his newspaper column dropped him. (USA TODAY does not carry the syndicated column but has published two commentaries by him in the past five years, neither about education.)

Williams now says he used poor judgment. The Bush administration, however, has shown not even a hint of remorse. The White House referred questions to the Department of Education, which argued that it did nothing wrong in making clandestine payments.

The department called the contract with Williams a "straightforward distribution of information about the department's mission and (the education law) a permissible use of taxpayer funds."

In fact, there is nothing straightforward or appropriate about using taxpayer money to make secret payments for the purpose of manipulating the public. And it is not straightforward or appropriate to use taxpayer money to reward a friend of the administration.

The administration can and should advocate its policies. It has capable spokesmen in Bush and Paige. Both are passionate advocates of the education law.

But by paying off Williams, the administration chose a different course: opting to advance its policies through deception, rather than illumination.

The Williams episode is just the latest of many efforts throughout the administration to use trickery in pursuit of policy goals. To announce a new anti-drug campaign last year, the Office of National Drug Control Policy sent out video news releases designed to look like independently produced news reports.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded that these bogus news reports which were similar to some used by the Clinton administration constituted illegal "covert propaganda."

The office reached a similar conclusion about spots created in 2003 by the Department of Health and Human Services to promote the new Medicare drug law.

These campaigns raise a disturbing question: How can the public be confident in policies the administration feels compelled to sell on the basis of deception? The best answer from the administration would come in the form of an admission of its errors, a scolding of the Education Department for its tactics, and a promise to reform its ways.

Follow-up editorial posted by the New York Times...

No Pundit Left Behind

Published: January 12, 2005

Washington It is clear the top leadership at the Department of Education is the gang that can't flack straight. How else to explain the department's decision to pay the commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind Act in his work and to his colleagues? Ultimately, this is a second-tier scandal, but it takes a place among a series of bad decisions that risk scuttling the most ambitious effort in a generation to improve education for poor and minority youngsters.

Mr. Williams strenuously claims he supported the No Child Left Behind law before he accepted any money, and there is no reason to doubt him. But this defense just adds ineptitude to the already shady nature of the deal. If Mr. Williams was a proponent of the law, then the political appointees at the Department of Education spent almost a quarter of a million dollars paying off someone already on their side. Ethics notwithstanding, this is a stunningly inefficient use of public dollars - every bit as redundant as paying football fans to watch the Super Bowl.

Moreover, the Bush team knew where to look for more cost-effective marks - that is, ones who needed persuading. At least until recently, the administration kept rankings of reporters based on their coverage of the law and its efforts on education. Reporters were graded on a 100-point scale depending on whether their stories were critical or favorable toward the law.

Bravely jeopardizing incalculable points, Ben Feller of The Associated Press broke that news last October. Yet here again, the deed itself is actually less worrisome than the implicit message about the department's top leadership: hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on the outside consultants who actually did the rankings.

Can political appointees who botch the simple economics of a payoff - or cannot figure out by themselves which news articles are favorable to them and which aren't - put into effect a law as complicated as No Child Left Behind? It's no laughing matter. Large policy changes require sustained, intensive and expert attention.

So far the administration's record fails to inspire confidence. Initially, it was slow to work with states and school districts and explain what the new education law requires, causing confusion among all parties. Those problems persist to this day. And when it finally did get regulations and information out, some were overly restrictive and subsequently needed revision, causing more confusion and costing support.

Playing politics with the law's financing also gave its critics an easy target. Considering the overall lack of fiscal constraint typical of this administration, its decision to suddenly become stingy on crucial programs called for in the law is inexplicable.

And then there were missteps like Secretary of Education Rod Paige's characterization of the National Education Association as a "terrorist organization." While unrelated to specific policies, such statements further weakened the administration's credibility.

Meanwhile, liberal Democratic stalwarts like Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative George Miller gamely resist efforts by groups like the teachers union to gut the law's accountability requirements. The stream of almost entirely avoidable problems and Department of Education gaffes makes it even harder for Democratic supporters of the law to resist the pressure.

Repealing a law passed with broad bipartisan support is usually an uphill struggle. In this case, however, the law's critics enjoy a powerful ally: the Department of Education. It is nearly impossible to buy the sort of bad publicity the department has lately been giving away. The new secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, should focus on getting the policy right, and let the public relations take care of itself.

Andrew J. Rotherham, director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, writes the blog

The scandal that wouldn't die! Again from CNN ...

Paige wants Williams investigation

FCC member calls for separate probe of commentator

Thursday, January 13, 2005

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Outgoing Education Secretary Rod Paige directed his agency Thursday to begin a speedy investigation into its public relations contract with a prominent black media commentator after leaders of a Senate committee asked for records of the department's publicity deals.

At the same time, a Federal Communications Commission member asked that his agency investigate whether the commentator, Armstrong Williams, broke the law by failing to disclose that the Bush administration paid him $240,000 to plug its education policies to minority audiences.

Williams has apologized for a mistake in judgment but says he has broken no law.

Paige, commenting about the flap for the first time, said he has ordered an inspector general investigation to "clear up any remaining aspects of this issue as soon as possible, so that it does not burden my successor or sully the fine people and good name of this department."

Paige is leaving his post shortly, likely to be replaced by Margaret Spellings.

The department, through a contract with the public relations firm Ketchum, hired Williams to produce ads that featured Paige and promoted Bush's No Child Left Behind law. The contract also called for Williams to provide media access for Paige and to persuade other black journalists to talk about the law.

Federal law bans the use of public money on propaganda.

"Given our jurisdiction over the funds involved, we would appreciate your careful review of the contract with Ketchum and the payment made to Mr. Williams," said Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in a letter to Paige.

The letter, dated Wednesday, was obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday. The lawmakers are the chairman and the ranking member of the panel that oversees education spending.

They asked Paige for a list of any grant, contract or arrangement of public money being used "for public relations or anything similar to the purpose of the Ketchum contract" from the 2002, 2003 and 2004 budget years.

Harkin also plans to introduce a bill requiring federal agencies to report their entire advertising budgets to Congress, and to make clear in their ads that public money was used.

As part of a more than $1 million contract with Ketchum, the Education Department paid for a video that appeared as a news story without making clear the reporter was hired to promote No Child Left Behind. The agency also paid for ratings of news reporters, with points for stories that make the law, the Bush administration and the Republican Party look good.

Meanwhile, at an FCC meeting Thursday, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said the agency had received about a dozen complaints concerning the Williams arrangement.

"I certainly hope the FCC will take action and fully investigate whether any laws have been broken," Adelstein said.

Paige said the public money went solely for ads in which he described the law.

"All of this has been reviewed and is legal," Paige said. "However, I am sorry that there are perceptions and allegations of ethical lapses."

When the news broke last week, the department defended its decision as a "permissible use of taxpayer funds." Williams, however apologized, saying that accepting money and then publicly supporting the law was an "obvious conflict of interests."

On Thursday, Williams, responding to the request for an FCC investigation, said neither he nor any of the stations that carried his syndicated program violated the law. He said the ads that aired during the show stated they were paid for by the Education Department.

"I was not engaged in any public relations in this campaign. It was strictly advertising," Williams said by phone. "I'm not concerned about this witch hunt because I know that I've done nothing wrong, nothing illegal."

None of the other commissioners responded to Adelstein's statement during the meeting. Afterward, FCC Chairman Michael Powell, a Republican, and David Solomon, who heads the agency's enforcement bureau, declined to comment.

Generally, the FCC reviews letters and complaints before determining if there should be an investigation. Powell said he had not seen the complaints filed against Williams.

More from the USA Today ...

Bush criticizes Education Dept.'s payout to Williams

By Jim Drinkard, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON President Bush expressed disapproval Thursday of the Education Department's decision to pay conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote the government's education policy. Bush said he wants his Cabinet to prevent a recurrence.

"There needs to be a clear distinction between journalism and advocacy," Bush said in an interview with USA TODAY, which revealed last week that Williams had been paid $240,000 to advocate for the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

Education Secretary Rod Paige defended the contract, saying it was "standard practice" when complex ideas need to be communicated to the public. He said the deal with Williams was to buy advertising on his syndicated radio and television program. "The funds covered those costs alone and nothing more," he said.

But a copy of the contract, obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act, says that in addition to the six-month ad campaign last year, Williams was to "comment regularly on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts" and "encourage the producers" of a cable TV program, America's Black Forum, to do the same. The program has terminated its relationship with Williams.

Paige expressed sorrow "that there are perceptions and allegations of ethical lapses" and said he was asking the department's inspector general to investigate.

At the same time, the Senate panel that handles the Education Department's budget and oversees its spending asked the department to turn over records of its contracts with public relations firms. The panel reminded Paige of the ban on using tax dollars for "covert propaganda."

The letter from Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, asked for records of the deal with Williams, made through a $1 million contract with the Ketchum public relations firm. The letter also asked for any other contract over the past three years that had a similar purpose.

In a separate statement, Harkin noted that the congressional Government Accountability Office has documented other instances of "propaganda" whose links to government funding were not disclosed.

Williams has said that he made a mistake by accepting the government money but has said he won't return it.

In the interview, Bush said, "I appreciate the way Armstrong Williams has handled this, because he has made it very clear that he made a mistake. All of us, the Cabinet, needs to take a good look and make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again."

A Democratic member of the Federal Communications Commission joined the debate Thursday, saying the FCC should investigate whether Williams' actions broke the law. "I certainly hope the FCC will take action," Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said.

He said the agency has received about a dozen complaints against Williams. Republican members would not comment.

Williams called Adelstein's remarks a "witch hunt," telling the Associated Press that what he did "was strictly advertising. ... I know that I've done nothing wrong."