Saturday, January 22, 2005

It's Not Because You're Black, It's Because You're an Asshole

[Originally written January 10, 2005]

How does the Armstrong Williams payola scandal trouble thee? Let us count the ways. There is the obvious atrocity of the Bush administration’s surreptitious move into outright propaganda. There is salt in the wound when one learns that the $241,000 Williams received for his services as cheerleader for the administration’s No Child Left Behind program came from taxpayer funds. There is the insult to injury, in typical fashion, of the refusal of anyone at the Department of Education to admit any wrongdoing. This is without the uncomfortable mention of the "race sellout" angle to the story.

It is clear that Mr. Williams has sold his credibility, quickly evidenced by his being dropped as a columnist for the Tribune News Service. His laughably limp apologies were nearly as funny as his inability to stop contradicting himself. At one moment he claims to be a commentator and not a journalist, and at the next he attempts to speak as a journalist. The insincerity on his face was as unsettling as the fact that even the right wing minions at FOX were forced to do their share of wrist slapping. The fact that he refuses to return the money is as offensive as it is ironic, as NCLB has been notoriously underfunded.

David Corn, liberal commentator and author of "The Lies of George W. Bush," describes his recent appearance on FOX news, during which he found himself in rare agreement with both host Tony Snow and conservative pundit Linda Chavez. They took turns scolding Williams for not disclosing that he was under contract to spout flattering opinions of NCLB. Chavez rightfully worries that the entire gamut of conservative commentators has had its credibility soiled by Mr. Williams’ hubris and deception. What confidence can a reader or viewer have that such commentary is genuine opinion and not merely paid flackery?

The average news consumer has difficulty telling the difference between a bona fide news story and a carefully prepared "video news release," having had the latter craftily deployed with the aim of selling Medicare or prescription drug reform by disguising a federally funded public relations campaign as hard news. As long as the lighting is up to par, it appears the public is willing to trust what they see and hear. A General Accounting Office investigation has found this type of deception to be illegal. Worse yet, it appears that they have only reached the tip of the iceberg.

Corn says when he ran into Williams in the green room following the FOX segment, Williams intimated that there were more of his type in the conservative media. When invited to elaborate, either on the spot or in a future interview, perhaps after the initial scandal has blown over, Williams declined. But it seems hard to believe that an idea so Rove-like in its sinister brilliance would have only one beneficiary. As Soviet era Russians across the social spectrum used to joke, "at least we knew we were reading Pravda."

As the Bush administration launches its uphill battle of privatizing Social Security, what is to stop them from employing the same tactics they used to peddle NCLB? In Tuesday’s Washington Post, it is reported that the House Republican Conference is hosting a "Social Security Briefing," where GOP press secretaries will be taught how to hone their support for Social Security overhaul by a New York consultant who helps corporations to sell products.
Do television news programs need identify which team their "experts" are playing for by issuing uniforms? How soon until we hear, "the Chair recognizes the Senator from Texaco," in our legislative chambers?


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