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Armstrong Williams

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Armstrong Williams

Armstrong Williams (February 5, 1959 - present) is an African-American conservative political commentator. In 2005 it was revealed that he accepted money from the George W. Bush administration to promote the No Child Left Behind Act on his television and radio programs.

Williams, a conservative newspaper columnist, hosts a nationally syndicated television program called The Right Side as well as a daily radio program. He launched his own company, The Right Side Production, in 2003. It produces and sydicates his television program to outlets including Sky Angel Satellite Network, The Liberty Channel and other cable outlets. His company produces his radio program with Langer Broadcast Radio Network.[1]

According to Williams' website, his newspaper column was syndicated by Tribune Media Services to "a wide array of African-American and mainstream newspapers". However, in January 2005, his contract was terminated over his paid but undisclosed advocacy for promoting Bush Administration education policy.

Background

Williams is a protegé of Republican senator Strom Thurmond, a politician whose career was marked by his strong support for racial segregation. Williams later became vice president for governmental and international affairs for B&C Associates, an African-American public relations firm. At B&C Associates he "managed such individual and corporate clients as the acclaimed poet Maya Angelou, the Sara Lee Corp., Kinney Shoes, Shoney Inc. (a restaurant chain), and the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Giving Foundation." [2]. He subsequently established his own PR company, the Graham Williams Group, in partnership with Oprah Winfrey's boyfriend, Stedman Graham.

Selling the Bush Administration's "No Child Left Behind" policy

In January 2005, USA Today reported that documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that under a $240,000 contract Williams would promote the controversial No Child Left Behind legislation of the Bush administration. According to USA Today, Williams was hired to "to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same." [3]

As part of the agreement, Williams was required "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."[4]

The contract with Williams was part of a $1 million contract between the U.S. Department of Education and the public relations company, Ketchum. Download Ketchum's request for increased funding for their "Minority Outreach Campaign," featuring Williams (132kb PDF file).

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

Fallout

After the USA Today revelations, Tribune Media Services terminated its syndication agreement with Williams. In a statement to Editor and Publisher, but not available on its website, TMS stated "[A]ccepting 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. 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." [5]

Williams told Associated Press "even though I'm not a journalist â?? I'm a commentator â?? I feel I should be held to the media ethics standard. My judgment was not the best. I wouldn't do it again, and I learned from it."[6]

Williams later told the New York Times, "I'm no longer Armstrong Williams. I've become a noun. And in some cases, I've become a commodity." He also said that the substantial, negative media he had received was due, at least in part, to his being African-American. "The liberal elite despise black conservatives," he claimed. "I am a conservative who does not know his place. If I were white, they wouldn't care." Williams also told the Times that he had revised two chapters in his book The New Racism, to incoporate the experience. [7]

Ketchum

Kethchum did not respond to requests for a comment from PR Week, the Washington Post, the New York Times or O'Dwyer's PR Daily regarding Williams' role as a paid commentator.[8][9][10][11]

White House

Rather than criticize the arrangement, White House spokesman Scott McClellan intially said it was a matter for the Education Department. According to Associated Press the Education Department said the deal was a "permissible use of taxpayer funds under legal government contracting procedures." [12]

As the controversy raged on, White House spokesman Scott McClellan remained non-committal on whether White House staff knew of the deal with Williams. "I'm not sure that senior staff was consulted before this decision was made. I haven't heard anything to that effect," he said.[13]

Three days after the story broke, McClellan claimed he was unaware of the details of the contract and that specific questions should be directed to the Education Department. As to whether Williams should have disclosed the details of the contract in his columns and on-air appearance, McClellan would only concede that "those are all legitimate questions."

Asked whether he would investigate whether other journalists were on the payroll of the administration McClellan was elusive. "I'm not aware of any others that are under contract other than the one that's been reported on in the media," he said.

Bush was asked at the American Society of Newspaper Editors Convention in April 2005 whether the of government funding of Armstrong Williams and the use of video news releases was deceptive. "Yes, it's deceptive to the American people if it's not disclosed," he said. "Armstrong Williams -- it was wrong what happened there in the Education Department," he said. [14]

FOIAs

Following the revelations of the Williams contract with Ketchum, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington announced that it has filed Freedom of Information requests with 22 agencies requesting copies of all contracts with public relation firms.[15]

PR Industry

The USA Today revelations caused controversy within the PR industry too. The day the story broke, the CEO of Edelman, Richard Edelman posted a note on his personal blog criticising Ketchum's deal with Williams. "This kind of pay for play public relations takes us back in time to the days of the press agent who would drop off the new record album and $10 to the deejay. It makes our industry's efforts to 'clean up' behavior in newly created PR markets such as China and Russia look decidedly ridiculous," he wrote.[16]

"I know Ray Kotcher and Dave Drobis of Ketchum. I am sure that they would never tolerate this kind of contractual arrangement. I am also confident that they will take steps to assure that it never happens again," he wrote. While Richard Edelman was confident Ketchum's management would take a stand against the practice, O'Dwyers PR Daily noted that "Kotcher has not returned this website's phone and e-mail requests for comment."[17]

"Some things are black and white. We need to set a very high standard of disclosure for our business, with total transparency on funding sources and mission. We should also eschew any practice that calls into question the integrity of the information being disseminated. Let's try to turn this negative for our industry into a positive, by making a long term commitment to the best ethical behavior," Edelman wrote.

While the White House equivocated, the Public Relations Society of America issued a statement saying "the relationship should have been disclosed up front, no question."[18]

Back to business

In the aftermath of the controversy there was some good news for Williams. In early March 2005 the New York Times reported that Williams had signed a contract to be the conservative co-host of a three-hour daily radio talk show on the WWRL station in New York.

Williams anticipated that the controversy over his Ketchum contract would be raised initially by callers: "You don't just recoup your credibility in two months. I'm going to have to spend some time earning the trust and credibility of others again. They can't just judge me by the rhetoric of my apology; they have to judge what I do." [19]

In a July 2005 interview with Bob Cusack from The Hill Armstrong said that he has (1) recognized the errors of his ways, and (2) resents the way he was criticized. He's managed to resurrect his career, hosting a radio show in New York and writing a new book to come out this fall, titled The New Racists: How Liberal Democrats Have Betrayed Minority Americans.

He also says he's bitter about how he was was treated by fellow conservatives during his payola-pundit scandal. "I had put everything on the line, defending the right, supporting the right. â?¦ None of the conservative [groups] came to my rescue. I was alone." The only conservative commentator Armstrong singled out for praise was Robert Novak. "[Novak] was a constant supporter. He was going through his own situation [on the Valerie Plame controversy], so we had a good pity party together," he said.

Ironically, he notes that he received his most sympathetic treatment from the New York Times, a newspaper reviled by the conservative movement for its alleged liberal bias. "If it werenâ??t for The New York Times," Williams said, "it probably would have been over for me." [20]

Contract Comes Back To Haunt Williams

In October 2005 Democrat Senator Frank Lautenberg released a letter from Education Department Inspector General John Higgins revealing that it was in contact with the U.S. attorney's office to investigate the Bush administration's contract with commentator Armstrong Williams. In a letter to Lautenberg, Higgins wrote "that during the course of our inspection of the Ketchum contract, we contacted the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. We are currently working with that office on the matter." [21]

Lautenberg believes this indicates that civil or criminal charges could be filed over the contract. "The inspector general wouldn't refer this to the U.S. attorney unless there was evidence of misconduct that requires further investigating," Dan Katz, Lautenberg's chief counsel, told the Associated Press. [22]

Other business interests

Williams is also the CEO of the Graham Williams Group (GWG), which is described in his biographical note as an "international public relations firm with clients in entertainment, politics, business and charitable organizations". According to a biographical note some clients of GWG include "Century 21, Computerland executive Terry Giles and poet laureate Maya Angelou."[23]

Williams is listed with the Premiere Speakers Bureau as available for key note presentations on "Business, Evangelism & Outreach, Patriotic" for $10,000 per presentation.[24]

Books by Williams

Contact details

Web: http://www.armstrongwilliams.com

SourceWatch resources

External links

Government reports into Williams Ketchum contracts

General articles