Armstrong Williams -- who received and didn't disclose Bush administration money to promote NCLB -- criticized Ifill for book deal

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN & DIANNA PARKER

Conservative radio host Armstrong Williams criticized vice-presidential debate moderator Gwen Ifill over her upcoming book about African-American political leaders, saying she "should have disclosed" it, and that it is "ultimately impossible" for her not to favor Sen. Barack Obama, because she has a "financial stake" in his winning the presidency. However, beginning in 2003, Williams did not disclose that he received $240,000 in Education Department funds to promote No Child Left Behind. The Government Accountability Office found that the Department of Education's actions constituted "covert propaganda" in violation of the law.

On the October 1 edition of Fox News' America's Election HQ, conservative radio host Armstrong Williams criticized vice-presidential debate moderator Gwen Ifill over her upcoming book about African-American political leaders, saying she "should have disclosed" it, and that it is "ultimately impossible" for her not to favor Sen. Barack Obama, because she has a "financial stake" in his winning the presidency. However, Ifill's book was publicized before she was chosen to moderate. Moreover, Williams' judgment on the issue of potential conflicts of interest was called into serious question when, beginning in 2003, Williams received $240,000 in Department of Education funds to promote the No Child Left Behind Act, including through his media commentary -- a fact he didn't disclose while he was doing it. The Government Accountability Office later found that the Department of Education's actions constituted "covert propaganda" in violation of the law.

During the broadcast, when co-host David Asman asked Williams whether Ifill, a PBS senior correspondent and managing editor of Washington Week, can "be fair and balanced at the forum," Williams replied:

WILLIAMS: Listen, all of us respect Gwen Ifill for what she does. But look, when you have a financial stake in a project that could be a great financial windfall for you, how can you not help but root for the person that you're writing about? I just think it's ultimately impossible for her not to have a bias and wanting Senator Barack Obama and Joe Biden to win this presidency.

I think for at least -- being the professional that she is, she should have disclosed this before anyone else found it out, to let people know that she has written this book, but it in no way is going to affect her effectiveness in being fair and evenhanded in the debate with vice presidential candidate Palin and Biden. The fact that she did not do that brings her credibility in doing this furthermore into question.

In January 2005, USA Today reported that Williams received $240,000 from the Department of Education in December 2003 -- through public relations firm Ketchum -- to promote No Child Left Behind "on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same." The article further reported, "The campaign, part of an effort to promote No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required commentator Armstrong Williams 'to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts,' and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004." An Associated Press article published the following day quoted Williams saying, "Even though I'm not a journalist -- I'm a commentator -- I feel I should be held to the media ethics standard. My judgment was not the best. I wouldn't do it again, and I learned from it."

A GAO report concluded in September 2005 that Williams' contract with the Department of Education was unlawful, because it was done "without assuring that the Department's role was disclosed to the targeted audiences. This violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition for fiscal year 2004 because it amounted to covert propaganda." According to the report, the GAO found no evidence that the Education Department directed Williams to disclose the contract. As Media Matters for America has previously documented, Williams has made several conflicting statements about whether he publicly disclosed his contract with the department, variously claiming that he did not recall if he disclosed; that he "made it very clear that we were being paid as advertisers"; that he "consistently" disclosed; and that he "periodically" disclosed. Citing this evidence, the GAO stated that Williams "publicly acknowledged that he did not regularly, if at all, disclose to his audiences or the colleagues he was to influence that he had been hired at the Department's request to promote the NCLB Act."

Moreover, the Federal Communications Commission's enforcement bureau, in its July 2007 citation of Williams and his company, the Graham Williams Group (GWG), for violating part of the Communications Act, stated that "[i]n response to our inquiry, GWG has provided documentary evidence, including recorded program material, that details numerous instances where GWG's principal, nationally syndicated broadcast commentator Williams, apparently promoted NCLB during various programs in which he appeared without identifying such comments as being sponsored." The bureau concluded that, because "Williams and GWG received more than nominal consideration from [the Department of Education] to include particular material in programming supplied to and intended for transmission by broadcast stations and that the material was, in fact, aired by various broadcast stations," section 507 of the Communications Act required that Williams "disclose to the [broadcast station] licensees receiving the programming that the NCLB-related broadcast material was sponsored by [the Department of Education]," and that "[t]he record ... establishes that such disclosure was not provided by either Williams or GWG."

Later in the October 1 broadcast, Williams said again that Ifill "should have at least disclosed it before someone found this out. The McCain camp just acknowledged they did not know that this book had been written." As Media Matters has noted, the book is available for preview on Amazon.com, and the AP reported that Ifill was the book's author weeks before her selection as moderator. Additionally, a September 4 Washington Post profile of Ifill by media critic Howard Kurtz mentioned that she was working on the book, and Ifill herself wrote about the book in a Time magazine article published August 21, the same day she was announced as moderator.

From the October 1 broadcast of Fox News' America's Election HQ:

ASMAN: Can Ifill be fair and balanced at the forum? Our fair and balanced panel weighs in: conservative radio talk show host Armstrong Williams and Mark Lamont Hill, Fox News contributor and professor of American studies at Temple University. Good to see you both.

Armstrong, first to you: You know what really got me was when I saw Gwen Ifill covering the convention -- the Republican convention? When she was covering the speech by Sarah Palin, she really didn't seem that interested. She actually had a little distain in her voice when she was dealing with -- did you see the same thing, or was it just me?

WILLIAMS: No, no, I actually saw that. Listen, all of us respect Gwen Ifill for what she does. But look, when you have a financial stake in a project that could be a great financial windfall for you, how can you not help but root for the person that you're writing about? I just think it's ultimately impossible for her not to have a bias and wanting Senator Barack Obama and Joe Biden to win this presidency.

I think for at least -- being the professional that she is, she should have disclosed this before anyone else found it out, to let people know that she has written this book, but it in no way is going to affect her effectiveness in being fair and evenhanded in the debate with vice presidential candidate Palin and Biden. The fact that she did not do that brings her credibility in doing this furthermore into question.

MARTHA MacCALLUM (co-host): Mark Lamont Hill, you know, it's hard to imagine -- you know, I always try to put the shoe on the other foot. If there were a moderator, the sole moderator, doing the vice presidential debate and that person had written -- just, you know, finished a book about Sarah Palin and how great it is of a breakthrough for women, would you be OK with that person questioning Joe Biden in this case?

HILL: Well, first, you know, Ifill didn't write a book on how great the breakthrough was, she simply wrote a book about the impact of the breakthrough. We haven't read the book, and so we can't say this is some sort of hagiographic, you know, description of Obama. But that said, if someone is a journalist, I respect their ability to be objective. We wear many hats in this world. There are many people who are sort of conservative talk show hosts.

I don't doubt, for example, that Armstrong Williams could objectively moderate the debate, even though he's a conservative, because I respect him and I respect the possibility of his objectivity. You know, and so, I think -- same thing with Dave, and you, Martha. Regardless of what your politics are, I don't doubt that you all could on the one hand be sort of ideological in certain spaces and then be objective in others. So, I don't -- let's give her the benefit of the doubt, here.

WILLIAMS: But, I gotta say this. In all due respect, if I'm writing a book about McCain and Palin, and the book is scheduled to come out right after the election, just before the inauguration, how can I be objective? I'm conflicted, and when you're conflicted, that brings about a dilemma, and that dilemma is not going to weigh on the side of the person that you want to win versus the person that you want to win. My point is that --

HILL: But here's the --

WILLIAMS: -- I think you will agree is that she should have at least disclosed it before someone found this out. The McCain camp just acknowledged they did not know that this book had been written. The debate committee, when they were voting, she had to be voted on by Republicans and Democrats.

ASMAN: All right, Mark, last word.

HILL: I'm sorry. There's -- there's two things wrong with that. The first thing is, she didn't hide it. The book is on Amazon.com. Millions of people go to Amazon.com every day. If you Google her name, it comes up immediately, so there's no hiding here. And secondly, to say that she's conflicted because of her investment in this, there are many people who are journalists who want McCain to win very badly, and does that affect the way they do it? George Stephanopoulos --

WILLIAMS: They're not writing books.

HILL: No, no, no, but it doesn't matter. If you want McCain --

WILLIAMS: It does matter.

HILL: -- if you hate -- no, no, let me finish my point. If you want Barack Obama to win desperately, might that affect the way you moderate? If you want McCain to win, might that affect the way you moderate? Perhaps, it does --

WILLIAMS: We're talking about a financial stake here.

HILL: But let me finish, but that's not exhausted at the level of a book, it's also -- it also can happen just because you want someone else to be president.

Posted In
Elections
Network/Outlet
Fox News Channel
Person
Armstrong Williams, Gwen Ifill
Show/Publication
America's Election HQ
Stories/Interests
Barack Obama, 2008 Elections
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