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NCLB Outrages

Might Have Gotten in on Big Brotherís Big Bucks

Ethics? Who cares? Prostitution? So what? Send the check.

I wish I knew then what I know now ó that Big Brother is watching and Big Brother will pay big bucks.

The Education Department hired Ketchum Inc., a public-relations firm, to monitor and evaluate the mediaís treatment of President Bushís education law, No Child Left Behind. The department wanted to know which writers supported the law and which did not.

Journalists who wrote positively about NCLB, Education Secretary Rod Paige, President Bush and/or the Republican party got high marks, graded on a 100-point scale.

Ketchum got $700,000 to review articles from April through December of 2003. You might wonder why the regular Education Department staff could not do this job. Well, the staff was very busy, and reading newspapers is hard work. So they outsourced it.

The Press-Republican seems to have avoided Ketchumís scrutiny, but the Burlington Free Press across Lake Champlain did not. In that paper, Kenneth Remsen, a school principal in Jericho, wrote such a negative analysis of the law that Ketchum gave him a score of -70.

Alluding to Vermontís dairy industry, Remsen says that "no cow left behind legislation might not be best for a small state like Vermont." Uh oh. Very bad. Not a positive treatment of the law, even if the writing is clever. He deserves a bad score.

Evaluating the writing on NCLB allows the Education Department to know which reporters need to be educated about its value.

Well, that makes sense. If writers are ignorant, and they must be if they do not write positive stories about the education law, then we should use taxpayer money to help them see the light.

The alternative is a free press, where what they write is allowed to enter the free market of ideas and be judged by readers without government guidance.

We can all see where that might lead.

So, of course, I am very happy we have this monitoring process.

It is also heartening that Ketchum developed videos to promote the law. These look just like real news reports. That solves the problem of having reports by real broadcast journalists. Those reports might lack the proper, positive perspective.

But the most exciting news is that the Education Department gave money to journalist Armstrong Williams to promote No Child Left Behind. It paid the syndicated columnist and television commentator $240,000 to say good things about the law.

Thatís wonderful. Letís hope itís not the last payment the Education Department makes to writers who say what the administration wants.

As part of the $240,000 contract, Williams agreed to have Paige and other department officials as guests on his show. Vice President Dick Cheney visited. African-American Williams also agreed to influence an African-American news show, "Americaís Black Forum," to talk about the law.

Predictably, the usual whiners have surfaced. The president of the Education Writers Association complained about the videos and the rating system. Others have suggested that the arrangement between Williams and the Education Department is unethical.

The Washington Post quotes a media person from Harvard who is, as you might expect, outraged, that a journalist is getting paid by the government to say what the government wants.

I donít see the problem. Pedro Martinez left the Red Sox to play for the Mets. If he can pitch for another team just to make more money, whatís wrong with a writer getting paid to shill for the government?

Besides, Mr. Williams says he supported the No Child Left Behind law before the government paid him a quarter of a million dollars to support it.

Some nit-picking Democrats might think itís incredibly, extravagantly stupid to pay a guy to say what he would say anyway. They donít understand business.

Mr. Williams, who usually forgot to mention that he was on the government payroll while supporting the governmentís policies, now admits that he might have made a mistake.

Of course, he also says he will not return the money.

Secretary Paige ó he told us that schools must be "accountable" ó says that the Williams contract was part of a "larger minority outreach effort." Paige insists that the arrangement was legal but is "sorry that there are perceptions and allegations of ethical lapses." Well, I wish I had known about Ketchum and Williams. There is money on the table. This government makes me proud. Iíll write what it wants about kids, schools, values, and the need for character education.

Ethics? Who cares? Prostitution? So what? Send the check.

Jerry McGovern, the Press-Republicanís coordinator of Newspapers-in-Education, taught for many years in New York state public schools. He writes about his various experiences in education, as well as about current educational issues. He can be reached at gmcgovern@pressrepublican.com or 565-4126. This column is the opinion of the writer and not necessarily of this newspaper.

— Jerry McGovern


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