Topic: Media

The Armstrong Williams Affair

Put a big star next to this one, for it is one of those periodic ethics sagas that reminds us that ethical muddle-headedness in high places is the rule, rather than the exception, while simultaneously bringing to the fore an emerging ethical issue of some significance.

Mr. Williams, as you have probably heard by now (it is remarkable how total hip replacement surgery will slow an ethicist’s commentary time, no matter how juicy the topic), accepted a whopping $241,000 from the Department of Education in return for, among other things, extolling the virtues of the "No Child Left Behind" initiative in his roles as a T.V. talking head and newspaper columnist. He is one of the most prominent and ubiquitous African-American conservatives (an exotic breed) in the pundit class, and the wonks at Education felt that he was a perfect advocate to build support for the controversial school program in the Black community. The ethical problem, however, is obvious, at least to everyone but Armstrong Williams. He is a journalist and an opinion commentator, not a paid spokesperson. When he gives his opinion on the air or in print, it is supposed to be motivated by independent analysis, not a government pay-off. Williams never said or wrote, “This positive view of the "No Child Left Behind Program" is sponsored, in part, by a big, fat check from Rod Page, Secretary of Education.” But he should have.

When the story first came out and criticism started flying his way, Williams managed to make a series of statements that should cement his reputation as an ethics dim-bulb for the rest of his career. He said, for example, that he hadn’t broken any law, and thus hadn’t done anything “wrong.” There is still some question about whether a law or laws were broken, but never mind: nobody who presumes to have opinions worthy of publication should be so ethically obtuse as to confuse lawful conduct with ethical conduct. One can be despicably unethical without violating any laws…as Williams has shown.

Then he said that he didn’t see anything wrong with the payment because he supported the program anyway. But the $241,000 was designed to encourage Williams to write and talk about "No Child Left Behind" as often as possible; quite conceivably, Williams could like the program and yet never choose to discuss it in public at all, there being quite a number of other public policy issues for him to bloviate on. The check altered the way Williams prioritized the issue among competing issues, and that is a significant influence. However, one shouldn’t have to apply even that much analysis to find Williams’ logic laughable. Let’s see: imagine learning that Dan Rather had received $241,000 from the Kerry campaign to keep Bush’s National Guard service irregularities in the news. Would a Rather defense that he saw nothing wrong with accepting the money because he planned on doing so anyway preserve his reputation as an independent journalist? Of course not. Michael Kinsley, who edits the opinion pages of the Los Angeles Times, has vigorously challenged the presumptions of President Bush’s Social Security reforms. Would his arguments carry as much weight if it were revealed that House Democrats were paying him out of a slush fund to publicize his arguments on the issue as often and as widely as possible? No. His credibility would be destroyed, and rightly so.

The credibility destroyed today, however, is that of Armstrong Williams. He has already lost some of his forums on the air and in print, and he ought to lose the rest. He has shown that his journalistic judgement is for sale, that his opinion, or at least the time, manner, and place of expressing it, can be bought. From now on, every piece offered by Williams on any topic from affirmative action to federal judicial nominees must prompt the question, “And who’s paying you to say this, Armstrong?” We will never be able to presume that the opinion he expresses is not being put forth for the benefit of another interested (and paying) party, because he now has a documented history of keeping such influences secret. Furthermore, Williams’ legitimacy as a policy analyst has also gone <poof!> beyond recovery. He has shown that he has wretched judgement. He has shown that he can’t discern right conduct from wrong conduct. Why should anyone pay attention to what such a person thinks about anything?

Williams, had be not been so spectacularly ethically myopic, should have avoided this trap. Still, the U. S. Department of Education is culpable for setting it. It remains to be seen if an actual federal statute banning the use of public funds for government propaganda was violated here, and whether it was or wasn’t, such cash manipulation of the press is clearly unethical, not to mention quite a bit chilling in its possible implications. Propaganda, the aggressive use of government power to promote policies and ideas through advertising and other public information (and disinformation) distribution techniques is something most Americans associate with totalitarian regimes. The fact is, however, that there is justification for a government explaining what it is doing and why it feels a given policy is the correct course.

The issue is how that explaining should be accomplished. Traditionally, the government has sought to educate the public through speeches by officials; statements by officials durring public appearances and media interviews; and press releases. Government web sites, a relatively new development, now engage in sophisticated policy advocacy. But it is fair to point out that opponents of government policies and initiatives, not just those from opposing parties but among well-funded interest and advocacy groups, are able to present their alternative versions of facts, figures and policy options with more impact, variety and persuasive power than ever before. It will not serve democracy if the public receives a distorted view of proposed initiatives because the government cannot effectively respond to criticism, any more than it serves democracy to permit the government to force-feed the public ideas and policies using propaganda techniques. Finding the right balance, and regulating it, will become an important task in the years to come. We can be sure of one thing right away, however.

Wherever the proper balance is, the Department of Education’s caper with Armstrong Williams missed it by a mile.


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