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Armstrong Williams' Column Axed by TMS
Editor and Publisher
By Dave Astor
Published: January 07, 2005 8:45 PM ET

NEW YORK Tribune Media Services (TMS) tonight terminated its contract with columnist Armstrong Williams, effective immediately. But Williams told E&P that he plans to continue his feature via self-syndication.

TMS' action came after USA Today reported this morning that Williams had accepted $240,000 from the Bush administration to promote the No Child Left Behind education-reform law on his TV and radio shows. E&P subsequently reported that Williams had also written about NCLB in his newspaper column at least four times last year.

In a statement, TMS said: "[A]ccepting compensation in any form from an entity that serves as a subject of his weekly newspaper columns creates, at the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest. Under these circumstances, readers may well ask themselves if the views expressed in his columns are his own, or whether they have been purchased by a third party." (Full text of the statement is available at the end of this story.)

John Twohey, vice president of editorial and operations at TMS, told E&P tonight that terminating the contract "wasn't a close call" after he and four other senior TMS executives discussed the matter.

"I understand the decision," Williams said when reached by E&P. He also said he would not be returning the $240,000.

Williams said the $240,000 in payments were made to promote NCLB as part of an advertising campaign on his syndicated "The Right Side" TV show and that this ad campaign was disclosed to the show's viewers. But he acknowledged that the payments weren't disclosed to other audiences, including readers of his newspaper column. Williams also acknowledged that he mentioned NCLB in some of his 2004 columns, but he said he didn't make NCLB a "centerpiece" in them.

The columnist plans to start trying to self-syndicate his feature this Monday. How many of his nearly 50 newspaper clients does he think will keep the feature? "That remains to be seen," Williams replied. "But I always feel I can sell my product better than anyone else."

He added: "I'm wounded now, but, guess what, wounds heal."

Williams also discussed the matter during an appearance today on CNN's "Crossfire" with Paul Begala and Robert Novak (who has faced ethics questions of his own after outing an undercover CIA agent in his Chicago Sun-Times/Creators Syndicate column).

According to a CNN transcript, Williams said: "This has been a great lesson for me. I apologize. ... I should be criticized, and I crossed some ethical lines. I've learned from this. It will never happen again."

Bryan Monroe, vice president-print for the National Association of Black Journalists and an assistant vice president-news at Knight Ridder, said in a statement: "I thought we in media were supposed to be watchdogs, not lapdogs." Monroe, speaking before TMS terminated Williams, added that while Williams "has long since abandoned any pretense of being a journalist, his actions still taint those who share the values and ethics of journalism, no matter what color you are."

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in the U.S. Congress sent President Bush a letter that mentioned the $240,000 payment to Williams. The letter said: "Covert propaganda to influence public opinion is unethical and dangerous."

The full text of the TMS statement:

"Tribune Media Services (TMS) today informed Armstrong Williams that it is terminating its business relationship with him effective immediately. After several conversations with Mr. Williams today in which he acknowledged receipt of $240,000 from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), TMS exercised its option to discontinue distribution of his weekly newspaper column.

"The fact that Mr. Williams failed to notify TMS of his receipt (through the Ketchum public relations agency) of payments from the DOE is a violation of provisions in his syndication agreement with TMS. The agreement requires him to notify TMS when 'a possible or potential conflict of interest arises due to the subject matter of (his columns) and the social, professional, financial, or business relations of (Mr. Williams).'

"We accept Mr. Williams' explanation that these payments by Ketchum on behalf of DOE were for advertising messages broadcast on his radio and TV shows. Nevertheless, accepting compensation in any form from an entity that serves as a subject of his weekly newspaper columns creates, at the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest. Under these circumstances, readers may well ask themselves if the views expressed in his columns are his own, or whether they have been purchased by a third party."
Dave Astor (dastor@editorandpublisher.com) is a senior editor at E&P.

Commentary:
My personal take is a bit different than most. Clearly Bush broke laws forbidding propaganda but that's not new. He breaks laws all the time. The war networks pushed his war without question until a majority of Americans believed things that were not true. Why did they do this? Could it be because their corporate offices were being funneled massive tax cuts and whatever Bush wanted, Bush got? Sure--that's how the game is played.

The media empires were forced to pay higher taxes under Bill Clinton and they savaged him. Coincidence? I don't think so. They manufactured one scandal after another, including the pseudo scandal Whitewater. How many journalists lost their jobs for lying about a democrat president? None.

What can we conclude from these two events? First, when a president increases their taxes as Clinton did, they will lie their butts off so they can bring him down. Second, when a president cuts their taxes, they'll lie their butts off to protect him and advance his agenda, regardless of how much damage is done. In both instances, the pubic isn't served and the media loses credibility.