Political Commentary or Propaganda?

Columnist Armstrong Williams will repay the $34,000 dollars of the $240,000 he received from the government to produce ads promoting Bush's No Child Left Behind plan. Williams maintains that he committed no wrongdoing. The case itself was brought on the basis that Williams was overpaid for the production of the ads; it does not question the legality or ethics of his being paid to promote Bush's agenda.

In the 2003 agreement, Williams was paid to produce ads for Bush's education plan. This in and of itself, although arguably a conflict of interests, could be viewed as acceptable. Yet, according to an article in USA TODAY, the agreement also required him to promote the No Child Left Behind law in his syndicated TV and radio shows and newspaper column. According to the USA TODAY article,

Williams has long contended that he did nothing illegal. "There's nothing to hide," he said. The $240,000 deal, he said, paid him only to produce the ads. His company ultimately produced one radio ad and one TV ad before the contract was suspended.

But what of his promotion of the law in his TV and radio shows and his syndicated newspaper column? According to USA TODAY,

Williams said his only offense was writing about NCLB in his syndicated column without mentioning the contract to Tribune Media Services. He lost the column after USA TODAY disclosed the deal in January 2005.

Can it be argued, that as a columnist, it would be permissible for Williams to sustain profit from supporting a political agenda? Opinion plays a strong role in the work of columnists, and impartiality on the part of a columnist is a non-sequitor, unlike reporters. Therefore, one would not expect a columnist to avoid personal opinion or agendas in his or her writing. However, actually being on the pay role of the institution the columnist is supporting shifts their work from opinion to propaganda or blatant advertising. Although Williams said he never planned to support the law covertly, even supporting it overtly while being paid to do so damages his credibility.

Although the public does not look to columnists in the same was as they do reporters in respect to impartiality, they do look to this sort of media for informed opinions. By accepting payment to support a certain standpoint or law, the journalist is no longer sharing their own opinion, but becomes merely a mouthpiece for government or industry. That Williams lost his syndicated newspaper column after the deal was disclosed, speaks to this effect. It can be argued that since Williams is a conservative commentator, this sort of relationship with the government he supports is acceptable. However, in his role in the media, Williams' opinions, however allegiant to the current administration, should not be determined by financial compensation. Although no one expects columnists to be fair or balanced in their writing, one should expect their opinions to be born from sincere belief rather than monetary gain.

Recent comments



Syndicate content