NBC anchor Williams: Bush administration has "right" to buy media coverage

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NBC anchor Brian Williams condoned the Bush administration's paying a columnist to tout administration views in his column and the former Republican CPB chairman's intervention in the programming decisions of PBS, despite reports by the GAO and the CPB inspector general alleging that such actions violate federal law.

Appearing on the December 4 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams told host Howard Kurtz that the Bush administration has "the right" to pay a columnist to tout its views in his column. Williams also condoned the "politiciz[ation]" of programming on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).

Discussing the recent disclosure by the Los Angeles Times of, in Kurtz's words, the "Pentagon planting positive stories, in some cases paying for positive stories in Iraqi newspapers," Kurtz asked Williams for his views on the propriety of actions in which the administration and former Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson were reportedly involved, including: 1) the administration's payment of $240,000 to conservative pundit Armstrong Williams in exchange for promoting the administration's No Child Left Behind education policy; and, 2) Tomlinson's alleged use of "political tests" for hiring a president and chief executive officer (CEO) for CPB and Tomlinson's involvement in direct contact with Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul A. Gigot while securing a programming spot for the Gigot-hosted PBS program The Journal Editorial Report. Asked by Kurtz if the two incidents were something to be "worr[ied] about," Brian Williams, who had moments earlier emphasized that expressing opinion is "a line I've always been unwilling to cross," responded: "Well, this is all part of the -- they have the right to do this on their team, I think."

Contrary to Brian Williams's claim that the Bush administration, Armstrong Williams, and Tomlinson have a "right" to engage in such activities, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and CPB's inspector general have determined otherwise.

In a September 30 report by General Counsel Anthony H. Gamboa, the GAO found that the Department of Education "violated the fiscal year 2004 publicity or propaganda prohibition" by contracting with Ketchum Inc. to obtain commentary by Armstrong Williams without requiring Ketchum to ensure that Williams disclosed the Education Department's role. The GAO similarly found that Armstrong Williams's commentary "violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition because it was 'covert,' in that it did not disclose to the targeted audiences that it was sponsored by the Department and was paid for using appropriated funds."

A November 15 report by CPB Inspector General Kenneth A. Konz alleged that Tomlinson "violated statutory provisions and the Director's Code of Ethics by dealing directly" with Gigot "during negotiations with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the CPB over creating the show." Konz also alleged that Tomlinson violated statutory provisions by establishing "political tests" as a "major criteria" for hiring a new president/CEO for CPB. Konz further noted that Tomlinson's decision to hire a consultant to evaluate PBS' Now with Bill Moyers complied with federal statues, but the inspector general alleged that Tomlinson violated CPB bylaws by acting without the authorization of CPB's board of directors.

Brian Williams's defense of Tomlinson, Armstrong Williams, and the Bush administration came just moments after the Nightly News host refused to comment on efforts by the Pentagon to pay Iraqi newspapers to run its own positive stories about the war and to pay Iraqi journalists to write similar reports. Brian Williams attributed his unwillingness to comment to the need for an anchor to steer clear of expressing "opinion" on such matters.

When asked by Kurtz about the Pentagon initiative, Brian Williams responded that "as long as there is no illegality proven," it falls into "that lovely, gray, undefined area in American history and culture where the government uses just about every tool at its disposal to win wars." When asked if he found such incidents "troubl[ing]," Williams replied: "[S]ince this takes us into the area of opinion, and that's a line I've always been unwilling to cross, I'll leave it to the journalism professors, the journalists who cover journalism to make a judgment about propriety vis-à-vis the government in this case."

From the December 4 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources:

KURTZ: The L.A. Times this week broke the story about the Pentagon planting positive stories, in some cases paying for positive stories in Iraqi newspapers. NBC followed it up, as did about every news organization on the planet. Does that kind of practice trouble you?

BRIAN WILLIAMS: I think as long as there have been conflicts and media to report on conflicts, the pejorative here is propaganda. I think there is -- as long as there is no illegality proven, or laws broken, this is in that lovely, gray, undefined area in American history and culture where the government uses just about every tool at its disposal to win wars.

We've just been through a debate about the unseemly way some governments win wars and get information out of people. This is one that takes place almost above board every day. And again, since this takes us into the area of opinion, and that's a line I've always been unwilling to cross, I'll leave it to the journalism professors, the journalists who cover journalism to make a judgment about propriety vis-à-vis the government in this case.

KURTZ: But there are those who say -- and you know this as well as anyone -- that the Bush administration has mounted an offensive against the press, whether it's making payments to pundits like Armstrong Williams, whether it's politicizing PBS, according to an inspector general's report, whether it's tightly controlling information that people in your organization try to get. Is this something that you worry about?

WILLIAMS: Well, this is all part of the -- they have the right to do this on their team, I think.

KURTZ: But isn't some of it crossing an ethical line?

WILLIAMS: Well, that's up to the individual journalist, and it's up to -- you know, an educated consumer is our best customer, to quote a New York clothier from years ago. It's still true that we hope our viewers realize that if it comes out of here, again, we have vetted it and reported it.

I mean, this is -- this is all the individuals involved. People -- people need to judge this administration. And despite any of the constrictions you mentioned that have been put on the news media, we have a free media in this society, and it hasn't affected our reporting this past week or these past several years.

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Government Paid Propaganda
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