A bipartisan group of lawmakers called for an investigation Friday into whether the Bush administration misused taxpayer funds by paying a prominent media pundit $240,000 to promote the president’s controversial new education policy.
The Education Department on Friday defended its payments to conservative commentator Armstrong Williams as part of a million-dollar contract with the Ketchum public relations firm to promote the No Child Left Behind Act with minority groups.
Williams, who is African American, was hired by Ketchum in late 2003 to build support among minorities for the president’s education plan. He praised the program in columns and on television without disclosing the payments.
His case is the latest and perhaps most striking example of the Bush administration using government funds to market its agenda to the American public under the guise of journalism. It is also a fresh blow for the media following recent scandals that have raised questions about credibility.
Williams is the host of a syndicated television show and a frequent guest on CNN, NBC and other media outlets, and writes a syndicated opinion column. His website describes him as a “principled voice for conservatives and Christian values in America’s public debates” who brings “an independent view with a refreshing twist to the central issues of our day.”
In a column in May, for example, he sharply criticized the National Education Assn., saying the teachers union was “fundamentally opposed to any education reform -- like vouchers or the No Child Left Behind Act -- that seeks to hold public schools accountable for their failures.”
Williams said Friday that he had “made an error of judgment” in accepting the payment, which was disclosed by USA Today.
Tribune Media Services, a subsidiary of the Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, announced it would stop syndicating Williams’ column in response to the revelations.
Democrats said Friday that the payments to Williams amounted to using tax money to fund Republican propaganda. They were joined in their call for an inspector general inquiry by at least one Republican, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
“We believe that the act of bribing journalists to bias their news in favor of government policies undermines the integrity of our democracy,” said Democratic Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada, Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts in a letter to the president. They wrote that such actions “were common in the Soviet Union, but until now, thought to be long extinguished in our country.”
Public relations contracts to promote government goals and services have been around for decades. Under Republican and Democratic administrations, the number and size of these contracts have grown, along with the use of deceptive tactics, according to PR industry officials.
In two cases last year, the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ nonpartisan investigative arm, declared that departments under Bush had engaged in illegal “covert propaganda.”
The GAO issued a legal opinion criticizing video segments produced by PR firms under contract with the Health and Human Services Department and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The segments were designed to be inserted into television station newscasts, but did not indicate that the origin of the information was the U.S. government. A third investigation into videos produced by the Education Department is pending.
The Education Department defended its practices in a three-paragraph statement, contending that officials had a duty to reach out to as many parents as possible to explain No Child Left Behind, which Bush signed three years ago.
The law, one of Bush’s signature domestic policy achievements, requires states to hold schools accountable for teaching reading and mathematics in elementary and middle schools in exchange for more federal education aid.
Concerns about public reaction to the law mounted in Republican circles. Democrats attacked the administration for failing to provide enough funding for the new policy. Teachers complained about the complex testing requirements.
To help promote and explain the new law, the department retained Ketchum. The Ketchum contract came under criticism last fall when it emerged that some money was spent to help the department assess how the media was portraying the law, and other money was spent to develop controversial “video news releases.”
Another part of the contract turned out to be the deal with Williams. The department acknowledged that a firm headed by Williams had been awarded a subcontract worth $240,000. The term of the subcontract was about a year, starting in December 2003.
In the contract, department officials said, Williams agreed to produce and air two 60-second television spots and two radio spots featuring Education Secretary Rod Paige explaining the law. The spots, officials said, ran frequently on Williams’ cable TV and syndicated radio shows over the last year and included a standard disclaimer that identified the government as its sponsor.
But the subcontract also included several unorthodox provisions, according to a copy of the contract released under the Freedom of Information Act.
First, it stipulated that Ketchum “shall arrange for Mr. Williams to regularly comment” on the law during his broadcasts. It also called for Williams to use his influence with “America’s Black Forum,” a public affairs television program aimed at African Americans, to encourage producers to “periodically address”’ the law.
Second, the contract gave Paige and other department officials the right to appear from “time to time” as guests on Williams’ programs. Paige apparently exercised this option at least once in a one-hour interview on a show called “On Point,” education officials said.
The contract praised the “unique and diverse” viewership of one of Williams’ shows, called “The Right Side.” The show’s audience is 30% African American, 21% Latino and 40% white, according to the contract.
“We’re interested in getting our message out to the audience that watches his show,” said a senior Education Department official. The official added that the agency would cooperate with the congressional request for a review.
But many education experts cringed at the revelation.
“You don’t pay money to a reporter to tell him that as part of that payment he’s going to allow the secretary of Education so many appearances on TV,” said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington and a former top Democratic education aide on Capitol Hill. “That’s buying news coverage.”
Public relations firms are increasingly used by government, according to PR experts, who said that Washington firms received millions in contracts from federal agencies each year.
“The government has been pushing the envelope more in recent years,” following the practice of private industry, said Paul Holmes, who produces a newsletter, the Holmes Report, monitoring the PR industry. “The problem, it seems to me, is what a company does with its own funds and what a government does with public funds requires two very different standards.”
The use of government funds to covertly influence public opinion surfaced as an issue in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration paid consultants to send op-ed pieces and letters to newspapers in support of its policies in Central America without disclosing the payments.
Controversy has also surrounded the use of the video news releases, which are typically produced by PR firms to disseminate to local TV stations.
The releases included short segments on government programs and policies designed to be inserted into nightly news reports. They included instructions to news anchors for suggested lead-ins to the segments and voice-over from actors who claimed to be “reporting” on a subject. The news segments do not identify the source of the information as the U.S. government.
For instance, a recent anti-drug ad produced by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy was titled “Urging parents to get the facts straight on teen marijuana use.”
The news release ran for two minutes, and featured a voiceless reporter identified as Mike Morris introducing such officials as drug czar John P. Walters warning parents about the dangers of marijuana.
The GAO said such releases violated laws against the use of tax dollars to fund propaganda without explicit congressional approval and without disclosing the government’s role.
“The crucial issue here is the covert aspect of it. The target audience does not know that this is information prepared by the government,” said Susan Poling, the GAO’s managing associate general counsel. “If this is prepared with tax dollars, then legally it should be acknowledged as such.”
During the Clinton era, Health and Human Services said it used actors to portray reporters in fake news segments designed to be distributed to television stations.
The GAO found that the same principles forbidding covert propaganda would have been applicable to the Clinton-era news packages, which were produced in October 1999. The GAO did not criticize the packages at the time because they “were not brought to our attention,” according to the legal opinion.
Rep. George Miller, a Democrat from Martinez, Calif., who co-wrote the No Child Left Behind Act, led calls to investigate the Williams matter. He said in an interview that he thought the Department of Education had “become distracted by the Bush administration’s questionable political agenda.”
Said Miller: “The administration ought to obey the law.”’
Times staff writer James Rainey in Los Angeles contributed to this report.