One Pundit Left Behind: Armstrong Williams
Armstrong Williams took a whale of a beating last year, when his contract with the U.S. government to promote the No Child Left Behind act led to a crackdown on "covert propaganda" efforts by the Bush administration. Williams lost his TV show, most of the clients for his newspaper column, and most of his work as a TV and radio commentator.
But even before this weekend's settlement with the Justice Department--Williams has agreed to pay $34,000 to the feds in return for prosecutors not pursuing any case against him--the conservative commentator was on his way back into the media lineup.
In addition to his daily show on New York's WWRL radio--a station otherwise devoted to the liberal talk of the failing Air America network--Williams has been back on MSNBC, opining on all things political.
Before the settlement was signed on Friday, I sat down with Williams to hear how it's gone after his fall from media omnipresence. Although his deal with Justice includes no admission of wrongdoing (Williams notes that the settlement includes reimbursement to him from the feds for work that he completed but was never paid for once the story broke last year), he concedes he should have told his newspaper clients that he was doing promotional work for the government. Working for the government and writing as a journalist simply do not mix--ever, and Williams now says he was wrong not to notify everyone of what he was up to.
"Disclosing is so simple and so obvious and it's what should always happen," he says. "I don't think any reporter, commentator or pundit should have any relationship with the government. That's my first mistake. I did not tell my syndicate I had a contract with the government. But the bulk of the campaign for No Child Left Behind was legitimate and honest.
"I paid a huge price for this," says Williams, who has devoted more of his attention in recent months to his real estate business on Capitol Hill, as well as to his daily radio show and his newspaper column, which still runs in a number of smaller papers. "If I write something now, people say, 'Who paid you, who are you flacking for?'"
Interestingly, Williams has found himself being invited back on TV as a pundit in recent weeks, by MSNBC but not by Fox, where his views are more in synch with the tenor of the programming. "The irony of it all is that some say it was the liberal press that kept up this nonstop campaign to stop my voice from being heard, but in fact, it was a liberal radio station in New York that gave me a chance when I thought I was finished. And it was the major black papers--liberal papers--that kept publishing my column. And it's MSNBC, not Fox, that invited me back on TV. Fox just doesn't call. I can't explain it and I don't even try."
Now that his legal case is settled, it's possible that those conservative outlets will turn to Williams again, but surely some news organizations will still consider him tainted. Williams, like Rush Limbaugh, has always contended that he is not a journalist, that he is a commentator, subject to somewhat different rules and expectations from straight news reporters. But Williams doesn't want to be given a pass on ethics. "My background is not in journalism, but I've always seen myself as an ethical and moral person. And people do and should assume that when you're writing a column, that you are independent of any ties to government or anyone else."
"I don't mind paying the $34,000," Williams says. "Did I do anything illegal? No. Unethical? I don't know. I do know I will not do work for the government again."
There are too many blurry lines in the strange, in-between world of media that has developed somewhere between journalism and entertainment. Any world in which Limbaugh, Williams, George Stephanopoulos, Greta van Susteren and Joe Scarborough play pseudo-journalistic roles is a confused one, and consumers of news and information deserve clear lines and certain ethical standards. Williams has paid a price for his blurring of those lines, and that price is more than $34,000. Now, if only those lines could be more strictly defined, that would be worth a vastly higher sum.
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