“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.