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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.

By Marc Fisher |  October 23, 2006; 8:37 AM ET
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Comments

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I don't understand. What was Williams charged with? And if the government paid him to do illegal propaganda, shouldn't the government be charged with something?

Posted by: ZachBG | October 23, 2006 8:25 AM

Williams, a pretenderjounalist who ALWAYS comes down on the wrong side of Blackness - at least he's consistent in his selling-out - should've been made to repay the entire $186,000!
What IS this'partial' stuff? For his betrayal of the public, we just get a 'Justice-Bite?" - a partial piece of justice?
Sad commentary on the status quo in today's U.S.A. I stopped reading his drivel years ago. Carol Taylor R.N. First Black U.S.A. Flight Attendant

Posted by: TheCarol Taylor | October 23, 2006 8:56 AM

Williams, a pretenderjounalist who ALWAYS comes down on the wrong side of Blackness - at least he's consistent in his selling-out - should've been made to repay the entire $186,000!
What IS this'partial' stuff? For his betrayal of the public, we just get a 'Justice-Bite?" - a partial piece of justice?
Sad commentary on the status quo in today's U.S.A. I stopped reading his drivel years ago. Carol Taylor R.N. First Black U.S.A. Flight Attendant

Posted by: TheCarol Taylor | October 23, 2006 8:57 AM

Armstrong Williams is another hypocrite in the conservative party like Mark Foley. A few years back, a Howard University Graduate male student file charges of sexual harrassment against Mr. Williams. Doesn't this make him gay?

Posted by: D.C. Black Resident | October 23, 2006 9:39 AM

"Unethical? I don't know"

It doesnt look like that he knows or has learned the difference between what is ethical and what is not ethical. It doesnt look like that there is any depth in his character. He is much like his fellow conservative commentators who are willing to tear down anyone or anything and suspend reality in support of their ideologies or rather ideologies of their bosses.

Posted by: kevin99999 | October 23, 2006 9:44 AM

I have always wondered if a journalist simply takes a press release or a position from a group, such a CSPI, and regurgitates it in an article, is the journalist acting unethically?

Posted by: Anonymous | October 23, 2006 11:03 AM

I have always wondered if a journalist simply takes a press release or a position from a group, such a CSPI, and regurgitates it in an article, is the journalist acting unethically?

Posted by: Anonymous | October 23, 2006 11:04 AM

Let me explain to Mr. Armstrong why he gets no calls from his former friends. He allowed himself to be used as a tool by the adminstration and the political right for which he was compensated. When what he had been encouraged and paid to do became public and open for cricticism he had no more utility and was dumped.

His lack of a strong moral compass and sense of journalistic ethics allowed him to be used as a sideshow attraction by the right and now causes him to be used as a sideshow attraction by the political right.

His former friends gave him a pass by not not moving forward, he should go and run his real estate business.

Posted by: WC | October 23, 2006 12:09 PM

The question is, Williams took the first hit, but has anyone else had to answer to being paid shills to "catapult the propaganda" for this administration? And don't we already have a headbanging taxpayer-funded press secretary filling that role? Seems like a waste and quite "conservative."

Posted by: Anonymous | October 23, 2006 1:32 PM

The real problem with the punditocracy is that the people involved are not forced to confron the repercussions of their bloviating. Right or wrong doesn't matter so long as there is something else to say the next news cycle. It all becomes a game and the players are like todllers wrecking a china shop.

Posted by: Chris | October 23, 2006 3:08 PM

You guys are "shocked, shocked!" that there are journalists on the government dole? You think this stuff has been going on for years, regardless of whose in the administration?

Come on. Be real.

Oh and who determined what the "right side of blackness" is, as an earlier poster stated.

Just curious, I didn't get the memo.

Posted by: DCPW | October 23, 2006 3:21 PM

Shame on Armstrong Williams and down with greed.

Really, we all don't have to be that rich. No need to sell one's soul to "get by."

Posted by: Anonymous | October 23, 2006 3:41 PM

I can agree that Williams should give some money back but why isn't their any liability to the people in the Department of Education who approved the contract?

Posted by: Questioner | October 24, 2006 9:28 AM

At this point Williams is a paid political hack, and any publication that publishes his stuff should identify it as an advertisement. He's lost all credibility, period. Let's not forget that no only was he paid, he intentionally covered up that relationship.

Posted by: Hillman | October 24, 2006 10:06 AM

This is one of those scandals that people in the media -- particularly those in the business of bloviating -- think of as the end of the world. Everyone else is puzzled why it's a big deal.

Posted by: dc | October 24, 2006 1:06 PM

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