Another trifecta! The party of the grown-ups and fiscal responsibility strikes again.
Seeking to build support among black families for its education reform law, the Bush administration paid a prominent black pundit $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same.
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.
Williams said Thursday he understands that critics could find the arrangement unethical, but "I wanted to do it because it's something I believe in."
The top Democrat on the House Education Committee, Rep. George Miller of California, called the contract "a very questionable use of taxpayers' money" that is "probably illegal." He said he will ask his Republican counterpart to join him in requesting an investigation.
The contract may be illegal "because Congress has prohibited propaganda," or any sort of lobbying for programs funded by the government, said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "And it's propaganda."
Williams' contract was part of a $1 million deal with Ketchum that produced "video news releases" designed to look like news reports. The Bush administration used similar releases last year to promote its Medicare prescription drug plan, prompting a scolding from the Government Accountability Office [GAO], which called them an illegal use of taxpayers' dollars.
Golly, I hardly know where to start.
The Ketchum "video news releases" for the Medicare prescription drug plan aired last January and February on 40 local television stations. The video clips featured a fake reporter, named Karen Ryan, who mimicked the look and style of a typical local news reporter. Karen Ryan (that is her real name) is a Washington D.C. communications consultant who specializes in training executives for media appearances. She is something of an expert in the fake news release. Over the years she has appeared in dozens of video news releases for groups all across the political spectrum.
In March the GAO issued a report condemning the Medicare video news releases.
An investigation by the U.S. General Accounting Office concluded that the VNR had violated a ban on government funded "publicity and propaganda." According to The Hill, a newspaper based in Washington, D.C., "VNRs are standard practice in the public-relations industry and local news reports often rely on them. ... However, the GAO said in its decision, 'our analysis of the proper use of appropriated funds is not based upon the norms in the public relations and media industry.'"
Seven months later, in October, Karen Ryan was back on he air as part of the same NCLB program that hired Williams. Nothing had changed during that seven months. The same laws that made it illegal for the Department of Health and Human Services to produce propaganda in January made it illegal for the Department of Education to produce propaganda in October. Yet, here they were handing a million of our tax dollars to the same PR firm to hire the same spokesperson for the same illegal and unethical practice. The contempt that the Bush administration has for law and honest government couldn't be more clear.
Let's get back to Mr. Williams. In his defense he says, "I wanted to do it because it's something I believe in." Why then did he charge us a quarter million dollars to do something he wanted to do? Why did the party of fiscal responsibility pay him? Could Republican cronyism have anything to do with it? Williams is not only one of the few black conservatives on television, he is a former aide to Bush's favorite Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas. Or is the Department of Education just run by stupid people?
How much more of this fiscal responsibility can we survive?