Armstrong Williams & Taxpayer-Funded Propaganda
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Jan. 25, 2005
Right-wing Talk Show Host Armstrong Williams Implicated in Taxpayer-Funded Government Propaganda Campaign
Interview with Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, conducted by Scott Harris
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Editor’s note: This interview was recorded four days before FCC Chairman Michael Powell announced his resignation effective in March.
While much of the media was focused on the CBS television network’s internal investigation into its “60 Minutes” program’s mishandling of a pre-election story on President Bush’s National Guard service, another more disturbing scandal emerged involving right-wing commentator Armstrong Williams. Williams, who writes a column and hosts radio and TV talk shows, accepted $240,000 from the Education Department to promote the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act legislation, then pending before Congress.
As part of the Education Department’s million-dollar contract with the Ketchum Public Relations firm, Williams was obligated to endorse the president’s education policy and interview Secretary of Education Rod Paige on his nationally broadcast TV show and carried on 51 stations owned by the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Federal regulations prohibit broadcast journalists from accepting funds in exchange for promoting certain points of view without fully disclosing sponsorship information to its audience. After receiving some 18,000 letters urging the Federal Communications Commission to take action against Williams, FCC Chair Michael Powell launched an investigation into Armstrong Williams’ conduct. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Josh Silver, executive director of the group Free Press, who looks at the Armstrong Williams scandal and the wider problem of media consolidation.
JOSH SILVER: Well, there’s this law that’s on the books; it’s been on for a long time, and actually was strengthened when the 1996 Telecommunications Act was rewritten, regarding payola, so-called “payola.” It stemmed from cases in which DJ’s were receiving money, hookers and drugs even -- true story-- in order to play certain albums on the air. But it extends to a frankly more important area, which is this issue of pundits and commentators who are regarded as news people, who are regarded as having objective opinions based on fact, who indeed are receiving payoffs. In this case, it was coming from the government, which is particularly egregious. But it also happens with corporations.
It’s really an open question. I mean, Armstrong Williams -- the pundit who has been doing a mea culpa apologizing far and wide over the past week and a half -- actually said that his case was only the beginning of the iceberg, so to speak. We believe that this is a problem that permeates commentators, particularly on cable television and elsewhere.
BETWEEN THE LINES: David Corn of the Nation magazine had a brief conversation with Armstrong Williams after the scandal broke, and he said that Williams indicated there were others who were also taking money, although I think he later backed off that statement -- and as yet, we don’t know the names. But what is the responsibility of Congress, the GAO (Government Accountability Office) and the FCC (The Federal Communications Commission)? I would include in that too, to investigate who else might have been paid by the government to spout off views on television and radio.
JOSH SILVER: Well, it’s absolutely within the purview of the FCC, it’s their rules that enforce these payola laws and it’s their job to do the thorough investigation to make sure that it does not continue. We firmly believe that this is happening broadly, and it’s not that hard to go through tax statements and find out the answers to this and we fully expect they will. In fact, our organization Free Press has gathered nearly 18,000 people signing petitions demanding investigations. It was those petitions that the FCC chairman Michael Powell cited when he decided to launch a formal investigation into the matter.
All of this circles back to an issue that I know you’ve talked about before, which is media consolidation and the grave threat it has on democratic discourse. Because, imagine for a moment … now keep in mind, Armstrong Williams has been on many different news outlets from MSNBC to NPR to Sinclair as I mentioned and others. And if Williams had only been on a handful of stations, this really wouldn’t be that big a deal. I mean he should get his wrist slapped and punished accordingly. But the problem is that when you have just a handful of companies that reach most of the American population, when you’ve got someone like Williams, the amount of damage they can do in terms of skewing the public debate, making people think, for example, the No Child Left Behind Act — which is a disaster by all accounts — is a good thing, and he was doing it as an African American. He was specifically tasked with convincing black people that it was good for them, that he’s absolutely distorting the truth and the payola laws are clear he must disclose that he’s receiving money to influence the debate. It’s not like you can’t talk, you just have to say that (you’re) being paid.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Now as you’ve said, the FCC under Chairman Michael Powell is going to be investigating this situation with Armstrong Williams, but can Powell and the FCC under this Bush administration be trusted to do a thorough and credible job of investigating what’s going on, given that Powell and the Republicans on the FCC are appointees of Mr. Bush himself?
JOSH SILVER: No, not at all, and that’s why Congress needs to be involved. I mean Congress, the Commerce Committee in the House and Senate they are the ones who oversee and watchdog the FCC by law, and it’s going to be up to them, and frankly it kind of turns back to your listeners too. Everybody who’s concerned about this needs to be bird dogging this case -- they need to stay in touch on our website on Freepress.net. They need make their legislators, their representatives in Washington understand that this is an issue that’s important to them.
It all comes back to this idea that media has a profound impact on democratic discourse and it has a profound impact on who gets elected and who doesn’t, and it’s imperative that people who care about what’s happening in Iraq, what’s happening with our water and our skies, who care about any issue at all has to understand that they’ve got to start looking at media and holding our elected officials and the FCC accountable.
So the answer is no, Michael Powell is not going to get it done. In fact, Michael Powell, the chairman of the FCC, has basically done everything in his power to go against the public interest at every turn. I mean three million Americans protested him letting big media get bigger and he let it happen any way. This, in the face of statistics that are appalling. Two-thirds of independent newspapers have been bought out by big companies over the last 25 years; one-third of independent TV stations have been bought out. Radio is consolidating at a maddening rate, you’ve got companies like Clear Channel with over 1,200 stations and monopolies in concert venues, billboards and elsewhere.
Contact Free Press toll-free at 1-866-666-1533 or visit their website at http://www.freepress.net
Related links on our website at http://www.btlonline.org/btl012805.html#2
- “Under public pressure, Powell launches investigation into ‘Payola Pundit’
- FAIR, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
- Media Channel
- “FCC: Public Be Damned”
Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Jan. 14, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.
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