“The black pseudo leader is a parasite,” wrote black pseudo-leader Armstrong Williams in October 2004. “He nourishes himself on the suffering of others.” Now let me tell you frankly that if a white pseudo-leader had uttered those words I’d be afraid. Paranoid that I am, I’d tend to read in all kinds of poisonous historical reverberations. Out of the mouth of a smiley-faced black pseudo-leader, however, it sounds, well… only merely kinda pseudo-poisonous somehow.
The Armstrong Williams mess is one of the more interesting amuse-gueules on the menu of recent political scandal. Armstrong Williams is a racebaiting scold and opportunistic so-called friend of a friend of Oprah (he was once a business partner of Steadman Graham, her boyfriend). As a paid political operative of the Education Department, he accepted more than $240,000 in exchange for promoting George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act on his television show and in his syndicated newspaper column. Williams, it is said, was specifically contracted to tout the act to a black audience. It is a sign of the times, I suppose, that the news has been greeted with relatively muted response. Dan Rather’s careless reportage about Bush’s and Kerry’s pasts provoked front-page reflections about television ethics, as well as a major investigation of CBS. But Williams’s is really the more extraordinary story: Going by two prior Government Accountability Office opinions, such a contract with the government is illegal. It is against the law for the federal government to pay commentators covertly to market its policies. But the media focus has mostly been on Armstrong himself, as though he were the entire problem.
“Please know that I supported school vouchers long before the Department of Education ran a single ad on my TV Show. I did not change my views just because my PR firm was receiving paid advertising,” said Williams in his website apology. It was smooth, this–he managed to conflate his personal beliefs with the innocence of his journalism, as though the steadfastness of his position made him any less of a hired hack, or as though his personal beliefs displaced any duty of the journalistic profession. He then went on to imply that he thought his behavior would have been just dandy if judged by the measure of business ethics: “I now realize that I have to create inseparable boundaries between my role as a small businessman and my role as an independent commentator.” This is smoother still: While seemingly acknowledging a boundary, it actually glosses over that part of the conflict of interest involved in the government’s contract for propaganda, and instead turns it into a palatable congruence, a natural outgrowth of the entrepreneurial spirit.
It was not the first time that the Administration was accused of having illegally subsidized pro-Bush advertisements disguised as news. The Office of National Drug Control Policy as well as the Department of Health and Human Services, it seems, had paid a handsome price to produce videos touting the President’s drug benefits package. The videos employed actors who delivered positive coverage as though they were reporters. In addition, the Census Bureau has subsidized a video extolling the fall of gender barriers, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did the same regarding the flu. And, of course, all this comes on the heels of reports that the Pentagon plans to use the media to plant disinformation as a way of influencing opinion abroad.
These are hard times for noble ideals. Infotainment has dulled us, I suppose. The very notion of independence from paid influence seems like a foreign concept these days. “Everyone in media’s been paid,” says a rationalizing voice in radio talk-show land. (The question of who does the paying was left hanging.) “Only a dope would believe that they’re not all pushing something.” Indeed, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for governor he admitted that he got “donations from businesses and individuals absolutely, because they’re powerful interests who control things.” There was such a calm slippage of causality in his statement: “They” are powerful and control things, so of course he should accept money from them. He said it as though donations were a way of informing himself. You wouldn’t want to leave home without a warm little scarf of the right financial backing. (Later he revised that to deny that he had ever accepted money from any “single-issue trade groups.”)
As Armstrong Williams put it, encompassingly enough to echo everyone from Tom DeLay to Alberto Gonzales to the juvenile delinquent of your choice: “I am paying the price”–how’s that for delicious irony?–“I just want to assure you that this will never happen again….” But this does happen, over and over again. Almost anything that comes out of the Administration is overcast with a pall of received cynicism. “It’s exciting times for the Iraqi people,” says our President brightly, and the collective eyeballs just roll. Beyond the obvious and endlessly tragic example of this war, this all-talk-and-no-listen stance has cost us greatly. The science community complains that the Bush Administration has appointed people to scientific regulatory positions who have no qualifications and who agree that global warming is not a problem and that stem-cell research is the equivalent of baby-killing. This has increased public distrust of science and of the government and is creating such a migration of scientists that our great research centers are beginning to be reassembled outside the country.
A truly free press ought to operate without the constant tally of bottom-dollar equation for each and every word. Surely the Founding Fathers did not anticipate the kind of bald ends-justify-the-means thinking displayed by the Education Department; asked why it had disregarded the law (to say nothing of universal codes of media ethics), it stated that “the Department has undertaken broad outreach to help parents–particularly those in minority and low-income communities–take advantage of the No Child Left Behind law.” When Armstrong Williams was asked the same question, he responded: “I don’t know anything about these kinds of documents.”