Armstrong Williams

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(HOST) For VPR commentator Barrie Dunsmore, last week’s story that a prominent conservative commentator took government money to publicly promote government policy, comes as no surprise.

(DUNSMORE) Armstrong Williams was a protege of the late Senator Strom Thurmond and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. His program, the Right Side, was carried on radio networks such as the Liberty Channel which is affiliated with Jerry Falwell, the Christian owned Sky Angel satellite network and Sinclair Broadcasting. In case you’ve forgotten, Sinclair owns the chain of stations that refused to carry an ABC News Nightline program devoted to simply naming those Americans killed in action in Iraq – and then, a few months later, ordered its stations to broadcast the documentary by the Swift Boat veterans trashing John Kerry.

In addition to his own radio and television programs, Williams was often seen on CNN and had a newspaper column syndicated in fifty papers. Conservative African American pundits are a rare species, and he was in great demand – including, we now learn, with the Bush Administration.

When Williams admitted late last week that he had accepted nearly a quarter of a million dollars to promote the “No Child Left Behind” education bill, it should have come as a great shock to us all – but it really didn’t. The line between objective, fact-based journalism on the one hand, and entertainment, politics and religion on the other, has become hopelessly blurred. These are days when Americans are having great difficulty distinguishing among an actual reporter, a political flack, a lobbyist or a religion salesman.

Some of the reaction to the Williams story was that it was just another example of ethically challenged journalists that we have seen in recent times involving major news organizations like the New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today, where reporters went completely off the rails and were making stuff up. But that is a totally false comparison. What makes the Williams case fundamentally different is that he was effectively accepting bribes from the United States Government. He was hired as nothing less than a propagandist in support of controversial legislation that would have particular impact on African Americans. He was being paid, by the government, to tell his fellow blacks, don’t worry, this law will be all right.

This incident comes at a time when numerous advocacy groups are deliberately trying to pass as news organizations. Recently, we learned that a weekly newspaper in Illinois, the Madison County Record, which focuses exclusively on lawsuits against businesses, was actually created and financed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as part of its $40 million campaign against trial lawyers. The National Rifle Association already owns its own national radio show and may buy its own radio stations.

This blurring of lines between legitimate news and propaganda may explain why, according to a University of Maryland Survey, more than 70% of those who voted for George W. Bush believed Saddam Hussein was directly involved in 9/11 and more than 30% think weapons of mass destruction were actually found in Iraq.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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