Many in the liberal and conservative media were shocked and dismayed that conservative commentator Armstrong Williams took federal money to promote his point of view on various TV and radio programs. Greg Toppo of USA Today broke the story on page one. The paper followed with an editorial against “secret payoffs” to the media. But there was something fishy about USA Today’s self-righteousness. This is the same paper that followed the lead of CBS News in writing about the phony Bush National Guard documents. Just like CBS, the paper had secretly accepted the dubious documents from Bill Burkett. It ran a story accepting them as legitimate. It has still not apologized for that.
But there’s more to the Williams story than Williams. The money was funneled through Ketchum, a public relations firm. What is not widely known is that Ketchum also does work on the political left, collaborating with such organizations as the United Nations. As part of the U.N.’s Global Compact, Ketchum is working on “an international initiative designed to promote responsible global development and good corporate citizenship.” It was launched in July 2000 by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
If you examine the web site of the U.N. Global Compact, you discover that the media contact for the office is one Gavin Power. He previously served as Senior Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility at Ketchum. Isn’t it interesting that the U.N. has the benefit of a former top official of a top public relations firm? But we don’t recall seeing any stories about that. The U.N. has an ongoing public relations campaign underway, paid for at least in part by U.S. taxpayer dollars funneled to the world body. But there’s no media outrage over that.
Speaking of corporate responsibility, the liberal Center for Media and Democracy points out that in the 1970s and 1980s, Ketchum worked for the Brown & Williamson and R.J. Reynolds tobacco company. The group says that Ketchum “drafted advertising copy denying the link between smoking and disease, and promoted the idea (since discredited) that B&W’s low-tar cigarettes are safer than other brands.”
With this kind of background, even more questions have to be raised about the decision by the Department of Education to funnel money to Williams through Ketchum. As noted by USA Today, “Williams’ contract was part of a $1 million deal with Ketchum that produced ‘video news releases’ designed to look like news reports.” Of course, the phrase “news reports” is also suspect these days because, as the “Rathergate” scandal shows, so-called “news reports” from the media can be just as questionable as propaganda paid for by the federal government.
This is the point: it was just plain wrong for the department to spend our money on a public relations firms and Armstrong Williams. That’s orchestrated or even fake news, not real news. But it’s also wrong for the media, including papers like USA Today, to insist that what they disseminate is automatically legitimate. Yes, USA Today caught Armstrong Williams. But the paper was itself caught in the “Rathergate” scandal and still refuses to face up to the implications of that fact. Williams has apologized. USA Today stonewalls. So who has the higher ethical standards?