From Free Press:
You’ve probably heard by now: Right-wing political commentator Armstrong Williams admitted receiving $240,000 from the Department of Education to promote the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act on national television – including dozens of Sinclair stations – without disclosing that he was on the government’s payroll.
Laws have been broken. Williams issued an apology in hopes that this scandal will go away. With your help, it won’t. Join us in demanding that Congress and the FCC launch a thorough investigation and introduce legislation to outlaw “payola punditry.”
This secret deal has already spawned outrage on Capitol Hill and in countless newspaper editorials. But the scandal is about more than journalistic ethics. This type of bought-and-paid-for punditry is illegal “payola” – covert payments to shape media coverage without disclosure.
This is not about liberals vs. conservatives; it is about the law. The Government Accountability Office has repeatedly chastised the Bush administration for using illegal “covert propaganda” in the form of “video news releases” offered to local broadcasters to be included on their nightly newscasts. These advertisements, disguised as journalism, complete with fake reporters, have been used to promote the Medicare prescription drug law and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
In the latest outrage, the Department of Education turned to Williams and his syndicated news show, The Right Side. The government’s contract with Williams, part of a million-dollar deal with Ketchum Public Relations, required him to “regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts” and interview Education Secretary Rod Paige during his show.
Given its record of brazenly slanted political content, it may come as no surprise that the biggest distributor of The Right Side was Sinclair Broadcast Group – which airs the show on 51 of its stations. Sinclair also employed Williams as a paid commentator on its “News Central” broadcasts. Among his assignments: An interview with Rod Paige.
Federal regulation requires broadcasters to exercise “reasonable diligence” to determine whether commentators on news programs have been paid to promote a certain viewpoint. Stations are required to announce before and after the program that “broadcast matter was sponsored, paid for, or furnished” by a government agency, a corporation, or any other unincorporated group. Sinclair told the Hollywood Reporter that it’s conducting an “internal investigation,” but the time has clearly come for Congress and the FCC to step in.
Among the first questions investigators must answer is how many other pseudo-journalists are on the take? “This happens all the time,” Williams told The Nation. “There are others.”