Armstrong Strongarms the Public

We now know that ostensible journalist Armstrong Williams, whose influential take on “No Child Left Behind” was co-opted and subsidized by the Department of Education, is to journalism what Paris Hilton is to acting.

But there’s a lot of blame to spread around when propaganda masquerades as news. There’s also one critical concept — public relations — that needs context.

PR primer

Let’s start with PR. It’s not journalism, but it’s not wrong. It should be an integral part of responsible leadership. It is as valid as it is valuable. Indeed, a company or a government would be remiss if it didn’t use all of its communication tools.

Keep in mind that the PR-government nexus predates the spinsanity of the Clinton and Bush Administrations. As well as Michael Deaver’s orchestrations for Ronald Reagan and FDR’s masterful “fireside chat” strategy. In fact, it was Woodrow Wilson who created the U.S. Committee on Public Information — for the expressed purpose of galvanizing public support for World War I.

For a government entity – with obvious taxpayer obligations – it’s part of the charge to inform the public about what it’s getting for its tax dollars. How well and how scrupulously you do that is what it’s all about.

There’s effective and ineffective. The former can be as basic as a well-written press release that includes a compelling news peg and is sent to the appropriate person. The latter would be a blatantly self-serving fluff item sent cluelessly to a desk or a department.

There’s also ethical and unethical. There’s nothing inherently wrong, for example, with sending video press releases to the electronic media. But mislabeling a spokesperson as a reporter would be unconscionably unethical.

Last year the Government Accountability Office criticized the Office of National Drug Control Policy for a release that used a contractor posing as a journalist. And the General Accounting Office accused the Department of Health and Human Services of sending out falsified “video news releases” that were used by 40 local TV stations.

Media’s role

Then there is media culpability and complicity – as in the aforementioned 40 TV stations.

It’s one thing for government to try to manipulate and manage the news. In a democracy with a free press, however, that effort cannot ultimately succeed without an enabling media — unprofessional, budget-squeezing and lazy.

A media that accepts pre-packaged, pre-spun news as legitimate fare. A media that doesn’t fact-check. A media too enamored of scandal and celebrity staples to scrutinize the details of more pedestrian – but more complicated – news items.

The shilling fields

Thanks to USA Today’s uncovering of a Department of Education contract that paid Williams $240,000 to shill for “NCLB,” we are now privy to one of the more egregious abuses in American PR-media annals. Williams, a high-profile, black syndicated columnist and conservative, cable-TV commentator, has been outed as a journalistic harlot, hooking for the DOE. And, yes, Education Secretary Roderick Paige had given his see-no-evil blessing.

In a comment that redefines understatement, Williams acknowledged that he understood “why some people think it’s unethical” and conceded that “My judgment was not the best.”

Worse yet was the reaction of DOE.

In a stonewalling response that Richard Nixon – or Joseph Goebels — might have admired, the DOE actually defended the mole-in-the media relationship, calling it “a permissible use of taxpayer funds.” Williams was part of its minority outreach program, explained DOE. His contract was for “advertising.”

No harm, no foul. And obviously no sense of shame over being caught trying to undermine a system that depends on informed public debate where “journalists” aren’t paid advocates for a point of view.

Fallout follow-up

But also impacted are legitimate “outreach” programs. There are valid reasons why minorities might want to consider the party of Thomas Sowell, J.C. Watts and Colin Powell instead of the party of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Kweisi Mfume. Why they might want to opt out of Democratic lock-step and consider self-sufficiency as an alternative to historic dependence.

Williams also has made it easier for those who look askance at conservative blacks as so many “Uncle Toms” and so much Republican window dressing.

And coming in the wake of the CBS and other media scandals, Williams has helped make the case for those already disposed to dismiss the media as something less than “fair and balanced.”

In sum, the consequences of Williams’ DOE work – as he himself might inimitably characterize it — are “not the best.”

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