Our fellow Reform Club contributor Jay Homnick has an article in today's issue of the American Spectator, "Fingering Armstrong's Handouts," in which he discusses the disturbing case of the talk-show host Armstrong Williams accepting a quarter of a million dollars to promote the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind education reform initiative. I have no objection whatever to Armstrong having accepted money to produce a couple of advertisements for the administration, but what is highly unseemly is that, according to a USA Today story, the contract contains a clause requiring Armstrong "to regularly comment . . . during the course of his broadcasts."
I'm aware that countless other journalists have made an incalculable amount of money by being on the payrolls of politicians, business, activist groups, and the like, but that doesn't make it right. This is a matter of selling influence. If Armstrong would have been inclined to comment positively on the administration's plan anyway, then taking the money is fraud, because in accepting payment for the activity, he implied that he was doing them an exclusive service. And if he took the money knowing that he would not otherwise have commented positively on the administration's plan, he has deceived his audience by saying things that were not his real thoughts.
By signing that contract—if it truly contained the clause the USA Today reported, or something like it—Armstrong has unquestionably forfeited his credibility as a journalist.
The issue of money and journalism is a complex one, but this story is, alas, all too simple, if true.