10 / January
10 / January
Unspinning the Armstrong Williams Apology

Armstrong Williams's final column for Tribune Media Services runs today. It's an apology over his conflict of interest in secretly accepting money from the Department of Education and then promoting matters involving the department in his role as an independent commentator. Like many public apologies, it's more than a bit self-serving.

Despite Williams's insistence that "I did not change my views just because my PR firm was receiving paid advertising promoting the No Child Left Behind Act," there is strong evidence suggesting otherwise. In a May 16, 2001 column, Williams laments that "Bush scooped out the soul of his own education proposal" and that "the spirit that ought to animate such legislation has been bargained away." After he got paid, Williams lavished unadulterated praise upon the No Child Left Behind Act.

Six times in the apology piece, Williams refers to "school choice," "vouchers" and "school options." This is a non-sequitur. The Bush Administration dumped the No Child Left Behind Act's provisions regarding school choice to win over Democrats. Williams acknowleged this in his June 26, 2002 column: "Unfortunately, something happened on the way to Congress. On May 2, the school choice provisions were stripped from the bill." The Department paid Williams to shill for the piece of legislation after it had become law. By this time, the No Child Left Behind Act, as Williams recognized then but conveniently ignores now, had nothing to do with school choice. So why is Williams draping his shady promotion of the No Child Left Behind Act in the rhetoric of school choice? Primarily, to make it seem that there was something high-minded and principled in his actions. Secondly, to appeal to his base of readers--conservatives--who generally detest the No Child Left Behind Act but love school choice.

Eight times in the piece, Williams reduces the controversy to one involving his acceptance of paid advertising from DOE on his television show. "I understand that I exercised bad judgment in running paid advertising for an issue that I frequently write about in my column," explained Williams. But if this were merely about Williams running ads on his show and then writing about those issues, there would hardly be a controversy. Television ads are hard to hide, making the relationship between host and advertiser rather transparent. But this, of course, is more than about a few television ads. Williams got $241,000 to occassionally turn his show into a No Child Left Behind Act infomercial and promote the legislation to other media figures. He did all this without disclosing the lucrative financial arrangement.

"People have used this conflict of interests to portray my column as being paid for by the Bush Administration," Williams writes. "Nothing could be further from the truth." In the embattled talking-head's defense, Williams has on numerous occassions criticized the Bush Administration. While his repeated invocations of "school choice" and "television ads" seem to be weak attempts at a Jedi Mind Trick, Williams is on solid ground when he maintains that the money didn't determine that his column would be reflexively pro-Bush.

Washington, as Armstrong Williams is now finding out, can be a brutal town. But it can also be a very forgiving town. Just ask Marion Barry, Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and the countless lesser men than Armstrong Williams who have rebounded from bigger scandals. Having seen Williams electrify audiences of young people from the podium, and observed his telegenic presence in front of a camera, I can attest that Armstrong Williams has a lot to offer. But if you truly wish to regain your prominent place at the table in the great national discussion, Mr. Williams, then it would be a good idea to tell the truth, issue a less self-serving apology, and return the $241,000 to the taxpayers.

posted at 03:52 AM

Is this really the most interesting thing to write on for the last two days? Armstrong Williams? He's a minor player with a show nobody watches. Sure he's made a grave error, but why should I care? Why should you care for that matter? If Leno asked 1000 people on the street what they thought about Armstrong Williams, I'm pretty sure he'd get some pretty funny answers, but none of them would have anything to do with Armstrong Williams.

Posted by: Brad on January 10, 2005 11:21 AM

I am glad Flynn notes this issue. As important as it is for conservatives to support each other, it must be made clear that we will work to keep each other honest as well.

Kudos Dan!

Posted by: Amanda Carpenter on January 10, 2005 12:50 PM

And the elephant in the room is:

Was Armstrong Williams the only shill getting taxpayer money to flog Bush Administration policies? Rather hard to believe, no?

And is the problem Williams (who, after all, broke no laws)? Or is it the federal bureaucrats and their elected masters in this Administration who DID break the law in paying for propaganda without reporting it?

Posted by: stickler on January 10, 2005 02:38 PM

Hi Brad - I think Stickler's comment is THE reason why you should care about Armstrong Williams. He shot himself in the foot, and we all get to share in the limp. How long is it until MSM flacks accuse, say, Thomas Sowell or Michelle Malkin of being a paid mouthpiece of the Administration? It will become a convenient way of trying to discredit any conservative writer. (Remember how Operation Rescue supposedly supported the assassination of abortionists because they held prayer vigils?)

Trust for the mainstream newsies is ebbing fast for this reason. It's not so much that some of them obviously march foot-in-mouth through the ages with the fringe Left - it's that those who aren't marching choose to line the parade route. They ostracize those of their business who write books about the subject. Mr. Williams took up their practices, and if we all choose the parade-route reaction, it will seem all the more plausible to paint us as a bunch of hypocrites. Worse, the Left won't have a reason to change their own ways, because it will be plausibly said, "Everybody does it, we shouldn't feel badly about it."

Posted by: Nightfly on January 10, 2005 03:47 PM

Well said, Nightfly.

Posted by: Dan Flynn on January 10, 2005 03:58 PM

It is not about the Conservative movement or Armstrong or anybody in particular. It is about the Government using taxpayer money for covert propaganda. Can't you how dangerous this is?

Posted by: Eduardo on January 10, 2005 04:29 PM

I am a liberal, and I have been impressed with the reaction of conservatives to the Armstrong Williams flap. There is no rush to defend the guy, or to minimize what he has done. There is also no rush to defend the Bush Administration for paying him. And many conservatives are demanding that Mr. Williams name anyone else who he knows to be on the take.

I think conservatives should care about this issue for exactly the reason Nightfly identifies (though I would, of course, use somewhat different rhetoric than Nightfly uses)-- if the public believes that conservative commentators are expressing their opinions simply because they are being paid to do so, or even that they are shading their opinions or changing emphasis based on funding and not their belief as to what is best for the country, this may lead the public to discount or reject conservative opinions.

Posted by: Dilan Esper on January 10, 2005 04:37 PM


Bad example. Leno's street segments often feature people who don't know anything about anything. All but pop flotsam would be "disqualified" by such a criterion. And would that mean that the Supreme Court members were uninteresting just because they would run into somebody who started naming the seven dwarfs?

Posted by: Sea King on January 10, 2005 10:09 PM
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