Payola Pundits Just The Tip of the Iceberg


This article is from the March/April 2005 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the March/April 2005 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Each year Gallup publishes rankings on how the public rates "the honesty and ethical standards" of various professions. In 2004, journalists didn't do too well, barely edging out lawyers and members of Congress and falling well below nurses and even bankers in the public esteem.

If the past few months are any indication, reporters will be lucky to beat out telemarketers and used car salesmen in this year's poll. The latest blow to the reputation of the Fourth Estate is the unmasking of several "payola pundits"--commentators who praised Bush administration policies without disclosing they were on the federal payroll.

First came Armstrong Williams, a syndicated columnist and ubiquitous TV talking head on Fox and the Sinclair stations, who took $240,000 from the U.S. Department of Education to promote the No Child Left Behind Act. His contract--first exposed by USA Today in January--required him "to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts" and conduct softball interviews with then-Education Secretary Rod Paige.

The Washington Post and Salon identified two other syndicated columnists on the take, both of whom were paid to promote the president's "marriage initiative." Maggie Gallagher insists she would have disclosed her $21,000 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services, "but it never occurred to me." Michael McManus halfheartedly apologized to readers of his syndicated column, aptly titled "Ethics and Religion."

All three payola pundits seemed shocked at the public outrage. Perhaps that's because pay-to-sway is the m.o. inside the conservative echo chamber. Williams and the others had been shilling for corporations and conservative think tanks for so long that a little extra taxpayer money for "something I believed in," as Williams put it, didn't seem so out of the ordinary.

But the Armstrong Williams scandal is about more than a few bad apples who simply "forgot to mention" their government contracts. Framing the issue as a lapse of journalistic ethics or the decline of professional standards conveniently lets the White House off the hook. The real story here is in an extensive effort by the Bush administration to manipulate public opinion by any means necessary.

On a daily basis, every appearance by the president and high-level administration officials is carefully staged to get past the "filter"--those reporters who don't parrot the official spin--whether it's at a Bush campaign rally (sample audience question: "Thank you for not joining the International Criminal Court.") or a White House press conference (where James Guckert--a.k.a. Jeff Gannon, the right-wing propagandist who somehow held a White House press pass for two years--asked the president, "How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?").

While the president tells reporters "our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet," the actions of his administration suggest otherwise. A report by the Minority Office of the House Committee on Government Reform shows that the Bush administration spends more than double the amount the Clinton administration did on PR--including at least $88 million in 2004. Most of these taxpayer dollars were doled out in no-bid contracts to firms like Ketchum Public Relations, which hired Williams.

The White House propaganda mill goes beyond the use of payola pundits. The administration has distributed phony news stories to local television stations trumpeting Bush's policies on education, Medicare (also produced by Ketchum), and the war on drugs. Now they are using the official letters we get reporting our estimated future Social Security benefits to "notify" people about Social Security's alleged crisis.

The Bush administration's perception-management efforts reach their apex in the Defense Department. Media strategy was a part of war planning at the highest levels before the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The continued blurring of day-to-day public affairs and battlefield psy-ops has the Pentagon considering which battlefield misinformation tactics could be used on our allies or even at home (where you can now tune in "The Pentagon Channel" on your satellite dish). "Information is part of the battlefield in a way that it's never been before," one Bush official told the Los Angeles Times in December. "We'd be foolish not to try to use it to our advantage."

And that's just the government. By definition, most mainstream journalists are already on the corporate payroll--from GE to Disney and on down the list. Most of the big-name reporters--some of whom won't even vote, lest they be accused of bias--don't hesitate to accept $50,000 to give a speech at a corporate event. It's not just conservatives: PBS's Charlie Rose emceed the annual meeting of Coca-Cola shareholders a few years back.

Consider the fact that studies show PR--press releases, press packets, stories planted by PR firms, and the like--accounts for as much as 70% of what passes for news, and Armstrong Williams looks like less of an anomaly. Perhaps the question shouldn't be who else is on the take--but who isn't?

Craig Aaron is the communications director at Free Press, a media democracy organization. He was formerly managing editor of In These Times and an investigative reporter for Public Citizen's Congress Watch.