White House says deal with commentator was isolated incident

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

WASHINGTON — The White House said yesterday that the case of the Education Department paying a conservative commentator to plug its policies was an isolated incident, not a practice widely used by the Bush administration.

With the Education Department still defending its $240,000 contract with syndicated columnist and TV personality Armstrong Williams, White House spokesman Scott McClellan was cautious in choosing his comments.

“Questions have been raised about that arrangement, it ought to be looked into, and there are ways to look into matters of that nature,” McClellan said. The spokesman did not say precisely who should look into it, and stopped short of backing an inquiry by the department’s inspector-general, as some lawmakers have sought. He noted that department lawyers have taken up the matter.

The Government Accountability Office is already investigating whether the department illegally promoted the No Child Left Behind law with a video that looks like a news story but fails to make clear the reporter involved was paid by the government. The GAO is also reviewing why the department paid for rankings of how reporters are covering the law.

Yesterday, Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts asked the GAO to expand that investigation to include the payment to Williams.

McClellan said the news media “ought to be reporting in an objective, unbiased and fair manner.”

“The government certainly has a responsibility to help when it comes to providing accurate information and helping to adhere to that principle,” he said.

McClellan said he knew of no other contract in the administration like the one Williams had. He also hinted that Williams shared the blame.

“There are also questions about whether or not this commentator should have been disclosing the information publicly,” McClellan said.

The contract required Williams’ company to produce radio and TV spots featuring one-minute “reads” by Education Secretary Rod Paige and to allow Paige and other department officials to appear as studio guests with Williams. The commentator also was to use his influence with other black journalists to get them to discuss No Child Left Behind, a centerpiece of President Bush’s domestic agenda, which aims to raise achievement among poor and minority children and penalizes many schools that don’t make progress.

Meanwhile, several media companies have announced that they are reviewing their relationships with Williams in wake of the controversy.

Tribune Media Services said it told Williams on Jan. 7 that it was ending distribution of his weekly newspaper column.

The company, a subsidiary of the Chicago-based Tribune Co., said it accepted his explanation that the payment was for advertising on his radio and television programs.

“Nevertheless, accepting 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,” a statement said.

Williams also hosts a radio show and appears regularly on CNN as a commentator. CNN said it would evaluate the situation, pointing out that Williams has no formal contract with the network.

“We will consider very seriously this issue before booking him as a guest again,” said CNN spokeswoman Megan Mahoney.

The radio show “The Right Side,” which Williams both hosts and owns, is carried by the Lynchburg, Va.-based Liberty Channel, which is affiliated with the Rev. Jerry Falwell; by Sky Angel satellite network, a Christian organization; and by Hunt Valley, Md.-based Sinclair Broadcast Group.

His other show, “On Point,” where Williams interviewed Paige last year, is carried by TV One, a Silver Spring, Md.-based network aimed at African Americans. The Washington Post quoted Williams as saying he had disclosed his contract to TV One, but said chief executive Johnathon Rodgers told the newspaper the network knew nothing about it and has taken the show off the air while it investigates.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter reported today that Sinclair is investigating an appearance by Williams’ on its nightly news program “News Central” during which he is believed to have interviewed Paige. “Our news department is reviewing whether there was anything inappropriate that aired on our station,” said the company’s general counsel, Barry Faber. He added that the company had no prior knowledge about Williams’ contract with the Education Department and that Sinclair had not made any decision about Williams’ future with the company.