The Department of Education violated a federal law prohibiting covert government propaganda when it paid for the commentator Armstrong Williams to advance its policies, the Government Accountability Office has concluded.
In a strong denunciation of an arrangement in which Mr. Williams received $240,000 in federal money, the GAO said the commentator’s work to promote the No Child Left Behind Act through his syndicated television show and newspaper columns, without acknowledging his relationship with the department, “qualifies as the production or distribution of covert propaganda.”
Disclosure of Mr. Williams’ relationship with the department touched off a furor early this year and brought intensified scrutiny to the agency’s public relations tactics.(“Department’s PR Activities Scrutinized,” Jan. 19, 2005)
The arrangement with Mr. Williams fell under a broader, $1 million contract between the department and Ketchum Inc., a New York City-based public relations firm hired to promote the No Child Left Behind Act.
In a Sept. 1 report, the Education Department’s inspector general’s office had criticized the contracts made with Mr. Williams through the PR firm in 2003 and 2004, saying they raised troubling concerns about oversight, among other issues. But the inspector general concluded that the contracts did not break any federal laws.
The GAO concluded otherwise in its opinion on the matter, issued Sept. 30 in response to a request for an investigation from Sens. Frank L. Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
The GAO said that Mr. Williams, who also provided his views about the federal education law on cable channels such as CNN, did not reveal in his appearances or writings that he was under contract to promote the No Child Left Behind Act.
Under the deal with Mr. Williams and his Washington-based company, the Graham Williams Group, he was to provide advertising time on his show, “The Right Side with Armstrong Williams,” for messages about the law and opportunities for then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige and other officials to appear as guests to discuss it. The contract also required that Mr. Williams use his influence with other media outlets to stir discussion of the education law, which is the centerpiece of President Bush’s agenda for education.
“In our view, the department violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition when it issued task orders to Ketchum directing it to arrange for Mr. Williams to regularly comment on the NCLB Act without requiring Ketchum to ensure that Mr. Williams disclosed [sic] to his audiences his relationship with the department,” GAO General Counsel Anthony H. Gamboa wrote in the report. The prohibition is contained in a 2004 federal appropriations act.
Video News Release
Mr. Gamboa wrote that the Education Department must report its violation of the law to Congress and the president and submit a copy of the report to the comptroller general, who heads the GAO.
The department’s arrangement with Mr. Williams was struck during President Bush’s first term, under then-Secretary Paige. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who succeeded Mr. Paige in January, has condemned the agreement.
“We’ve been saying for the past six months that this was stupid, wrong, and ill-advised,” Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said last week.
The GAO, in a separate Sept. 30 letter, found that another of the department’s public relations tools, a video news release promoting free tutoring under the No Child Left Behind Act, also constituted covert propaganda, because the video purported to be an independent news package, with no mention that it was financed by the federal government. The ostensible reporter in the 2003 segment signed off with, “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.”
“The failure of an agency to identify itself as a source of a prepackaged news story misleads the viewing public by encouraging the viewing audience to believe that the broadcasting news organization developed the information,” Mr. Gamboa wrote.
But the GAO determined that a 2003-04 analysis of newspaper stories about the No Child Left Behind Act done by Ketchum, which rated reporters on how favorably they wrote about the law, was within the department’s authority and did not break the law on covert propaganda.
Mr. Williams is in discussions with the Education Department to return at least some of his payments, said Shirley E. Dave, the Williams spokeswoman. Not all the money will be returned, because some of it was spent on services Mr. Williams has provided, she said. Asked what Mr. Williams thought of the conclusions reached by the GAO, Ms. Dave said, “He doesn’t disagree with it.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as GAO: Armstrong Williams PR Contract Violated Law