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Buying News: The Federal Government and Armstrong Williams


Jerry Dunklee
, SPJ Ethics Committee member and professor, Southern Connecticut State University, 203/392-5801

Irwin Gratz, SPJ National President, 207/874-6570 or igratz@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS -- The revelations that TV and radio talk host and syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 by a public relations firm working for the U.S. Department of Education to promote the No Child Left Behind Act has raised, again, serious questions about the federal government using tax dollars to pay for propaganda to promote political opinion.

Last summer the General Accounting Office (GAO) ruled that video news releases from the Office of National Drug Control Policy were a violation of federal law. Those TV “news packages” did not identify the source of the messages, i.e. the government. The “news” stories were shown on many television stations in the United States. The GAO said those stories violated several laws including the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2004. That Act states, “No part of any appropriation contained in this or any other Act shall be used for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not heretofore authorized by Congress.”

There has been no ruling in the Armstrong Williams case yet, but it is clear to the Society of Professional Journalists that government payment to commentators or journalists to publicize one point of view should be condemned and stopped.

The Tribune Media Services, which syndicated a column by Williams, has dropped his column. That is appropriate and should be commended. The SPJ Code of Ethics clearly states “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.” It also states, “Journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” Being paid to promote a point of view in news stories or columns is never acceptable for ethical journalists. Williams’ actions clearly violate journalistic ethics, and he should have been aware of the obvious conflict of interest.

However, government purchase of space or airtime to disseminate propaganda masquerading as news is a more pressing issue. Government efforts to influence political debate by paying for “news” or for opinion using taxpayer dollars is at direct attack on the right of the people to not be propagandized by government agencies. The United States has a long tradition of distrusting these attempts. The Smith-Mundt Act in 1948 forbids domestic dissemination of U.S. government materials intended for foreign audiences. The Voice of America, the government-run broadcast news operation aimed at other countries, may not broadcast to domestic audiences. The fear was and is, that giving any administration access to these powerful tools would undermine the democratic process in the United State and cause the public to question the credibility of genuine news offered to them. Paying for news with tax dollars covertly is clearly never acceptable.

The Society of Professional Journalists demands the use of tax money to influence news or opinion be stopped immediately. The Society asks that an independent investigation of the payments to Williams, and of any other similar payments to others, be conducted and those in government responsible for such payment be held to account for their actions under the law. SPJ also supports efforts to strengthen current law in this regard to ensure paid government attempts to influence the news does not occur again.

Local chapters of SPJ will sponsor meetings and discussion of journalism ethics during our third annual Ethics Week, April 25-30, 2005. The intention is to further explain ethical journalism to reporters, editors and the general public.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed public, works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists, and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

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