WASHINGTON -- My conservative pundit friend Armstrong Williams just had the weekend from hell, answering phones and juggling interviews like a multitasking press agent for Paris Hilton.
"Have you seen the coverage?" he exclaimed over the phone. "I had no idea I was this important!"
Well, sorry, my friend, but it's not just about you. There's also the matter of $240,000 in taxpayer money.
That's how much the Education Department paid Mr. Williams to promote the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind education reform policy in his dual roles as chief executive officer of a public relations firm and a multimedia news and public affairs pundit.
An enterprising USA Today reporter last week unearthed the deal that the Ketchum public relations firm signed with Mr. Williams' Washington-based PR firm, Graham Williams, in late 2003 on behalf of the Education Department. It required Mr. Williams to promote the No Child Left Behind legislation on his nationally syndicated TV show and to urge America's Black Forum, a syndicated public affairs television program on which he and I have appeared, to "periodically address" the law. The contract also required Mr. Williams to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004 and allow Mr. Paige to appear as an interview guest in a Williams-produced TV show.
"I wanted to do it because it's something I believe in," Mr. Williams said. Unfortunately, payola is wrong, even when you're being paid to do something you would have done for free anyway.
Mr. Williams probably understood this when he conveniently failed to tell his audiences or hardly anyone else at his many jobs and public appearances about his cozy contract. When it became a front-page story, he shifted into full PR mode. He confessed to bad judgment, apologized to his audiences and promised never, ever to conflict his interests again. But he refused to return the money his firm was paid.
Tribune Media Services, which distributed his column (and distributes mine) nationally, dropped him. No problem, he said. He plans to syndicate himself and keep all of the money this time. That's Mr. Williams. Always the entrepreneur.
Of course, that's where his conflicts began. He's not a journalist, but he likes to play as if he's one. My enterprising friend is something quite different from conventional journalists, pundits or public relations agents. Like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Al Franken, Michael Moore or Tavis Smiley, he is an amalgam of all three -- with some P. T. Barnum thrown in. He is larger than journalism. He is, in short, a brand. Brands don't need to cover stories. They are the story.
As a passionately outspoken aide to Sen. Strom Thurmond and an adviser to Clarence Thomas when the U.S. Supreme Court justice was head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Mr. Williams built his brand as a black conservative at a time when a new pundit industry was blossoming.
With cable TV, talk radio and other new media taking off, you no longer had to have a lot to say in order to get air time. You merely had to be available at the flip of a producer's Rolodex to give good sound bites from the left or the right, depending on which slot needed to be filled.
As filmmaker Woody Allen once said, 80 percent of success is showing up. So is broadcast punditry.
Now that the media are holding him up to the ethics standards of conventional journalists, Mr. Williams said, in what sounded like full spin mode, that he will change his ways. "I'm not going to advocate for anybody or any of the issues that I talk about on television," he vowed. "Either you're going to be a journalist or out hustling for money. I want to be a journalist."
Thanks, Mr. Williams, but I'll believe that when you give up your public relations business.
Adding insult to injury is the recent conclusion by the Government Accountability Office that the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Department of Health and Human Services probably violated federal propaganda laws when the agencies distributed fake "news" videos designed to look like regular news reports for airing on local TV stations. It's estimated that 22 million viewers saw these "prepackaged news stories" without any indication of their government funding or that they were prepared by the ONDCP.
With the Armstrong Williams affair, Education Department spokesmen are vowing to cooperate with a looming congressional probe of the charade. Good. Secretary Paige is on his way out. Next to go out the door should be anyone who thinks fake news is a clever way to educate the public.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.