Armstrong Williams: The Biggest Whore of All
Ohanian Comment: Read this strong piece. Note the conclusion, which I put here because it should be read twice.
Any focus group could inform corporate media that Armstrong Williams is among the most despised personalities in Black America – right up there with his old friend and boss, Clarence Thomas. That couldn’t be good for ratings among the important Black demographic – and Williams is so generally obnoxious we doubt that he’s a big draw among whites, either. No, corporate media boosted Williams because he reflects the worldview of corporate executives, the people who really run the show. USA Today broke the Armstrong Williams scandal, but they previously ran his journalistically worthless column, week after week. He was speaking their language.
It's the corporate message, stupid.
And then there's the Oprah connection.
Armstrong Williams is “the premiere Black political whore in America,” wrote Black Commentator Co-Publishers Glen Ford and Peter Gamble in our December 12, 2002 issue. In the interest of full disclosure, we revealed our particular grievance: that Williams had hopelessly polluted America’s Black Forum (ABF), the first nationally syndicated Black news interview program on commercial television, created by Ford and Gamble in 1977. “Since the mid-Nineties,” we wrote, “ABF has devolved into a menagerie of professional Black propagandists in service of the most vicious elements of the Republican Party. It is a bizarre experience.” ABF had become “America’s Black Right-wing Forum” – the title of our Cover Story.
For a time, white rightwing columnist Pat Buchanan was a regular guest on ABF. So it came as little surprise that the program, which once generated weekly, worldwide headlines on the scale of Meet the Press, Issues and Answers, and Face the Nation, finally became just another brothel in Armstrong Williams’ political red light district – a quickies venue for paying customers like Bush Education Secretary, Rod Paige.
Armstrong Williams’ services were procured by written contract – an innovation in the political payola trade – which stipulated that "Mr. Williams shall utilize his long-term working relationships with 'America's Black Forum'…to encourage the producers to periodically address the No Child Left Behind Act [NCLB]," according to the New York Times. In return for $240,000 in public funds, laundered as “advertising” fees, the contract required Williams to “regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts" on his own TV show, The Right Side, and that "Secretary Paige and other department officials shall have the option of appearing from time to time as studio guests." Williams had no trouble arranging for Paige to appear on America’s Black Forum, as well – a freebie for the big-spending Bush crew.
Williams’ public promiscuity cost him dearly, causing Tribune Media Services to terminate syndication of his column to 50 newspapers, including USA Today, which broke the story on January 7. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) charges that the Department of Education contract with Williams “is in violation of the Publicity and Propaganda clause included in annual appropriations bills for decades.” Congressional Democrats wrote a letter to President Bush. “Covert propaganda to influence public opinion is unethical and dangerous," they said.
The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) called on the White House to “rebuke those in the Department of Education who used taxpayer dollars to pay off conservative commentator Armstrong Williams in an attempt to influence public opinion on administration policy.”
“He’s tainted fruit,” said NABJ vice president for broadcast, Barbara Ciara. “And he’s unfairly indicted all commentators who have their own independent opinion, don’t need a script from the administration and don’t need to be paid off.”
But of course, Armstrong Williams has never been a journalist, nor has he ever uttered or written a word that could qualify as straightforward political commentary. Since 1979, when the 20-year-old signed on with his “mentor,” South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond and, later, as an aide to Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Williams has been a rightwing political operative for hire – a specialty he turned into a lucrative business. As we reported back in 2002: “Williams' public relations firm, the Graham Williams Group, co-founded with Oprah boyfriend Stedman Graham, specializes in serving ‘public policy organizations’ – the institutional Right. He is the Hardest Working Man in Ho' Business.”
Although the white Right is Williams’ principal client, powerful Blacks are also to blame for inflicting him on the citizenry. Cathy Hughes, owner of 69-station-strong Radio One, gave Williams his first broadcast commentator slot in the mid-Eighties, back when her holdings consisted of just two stations, in Washington and Baltimore. In effect, Hughes credentialized Williams as a broadcast “journalist” two decades ago. Until last week’s furor, Hughes’ TV One cable operation carried Williams’ program, On Point, where Rod Paige appeared, last year. TV One CEO Johnathon Rodgers told the Washington Post he’s pulled the show pending an “investigation,” and that he knew nothing about Williams’ contract with Paige’s department. Williams claims he informed TV One about the deal.
To be of value to the white Right, Black mercenaries must appear to have some standing in the African American community. The Uniworld Group, the current producers of America’s Black Forum, gave Williams such a weekly platform. It is clear that Uniworld made a “strategic” decision in 1996 to position the program on the right. Armstrong Williams’ presence on the show is a product – not the cause – of ABF’s rightward turn. In the ABF environment created by Uniworld, Williams had no difficulty fulfilling his “contract.”
A much larger crime
Although Williams richly deserves public excoriation, self-righteous journalists of all ethnicities and persuasions are missing the big story. Rod Paige’s $240,000 propaganda payment to Williams is puny compared to the tons of cash the Department of Education lavishes on organizations pushing school vouchers and privatization – more than $75 million by the end of 2003, according to a report by People for the American Way. (See , “Bush’s Phony ‘Grassroots’ Voucher ‘Movement,’” December 4, 2003.) More than a year later, that figure has almost certainly passed the $100 million mark in grants and “contracts” to groups whose mission is “to discredit the very concept of public education.” Much of the work is pure propaganda, euphemistically dubbed “public education” on the “school choice” aspects of No Child Left Behind – the same mission Williams was contracted to perform. Among the multi-million dollar recipients is the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), the voucher front group created by the arch-reactionary Bradley and Walton Family Foundations and now feeding at the public trough. Williams was a founding director of BAEO, as reported in our inaugural issue Cover Story, “Fruit of the Poisoned Tree,” April 5, 2002. Williams’ $240,000 contract was his cut from the Bush voucher bagman, Rod Paige. No wonder he has no intention of giving the money back.
In pillorying Williams, corporate media ignore their own culpability. Our colleagues at the NorthStar Network get it mostly right:
“For some time now, Williams and his ilk, have been lapped up by newspaper and radio syndication groups, and the cable news channels while having no real constituency. In the process the media has been partially responsible for creating the false impression that political conservatism was taking hold in the Black mainstream. Williams, Ward Connerly, and others, have been given a role of prominence by the news media that far surpasses their standing among Blacks. At the same time Black progressive voices have been overlooked by news organizations that seem far more interested in creating an entertaining, albeit false, sense of conflict and division between Blacks. Black conservatives, and their white shadows, have fared well from a news environment in which journalistic standards have been sacrificed for ratings. The story behind Williams’ payment is most likely just one of many such arrangements that have served to dupe an already connived American public.”
We differ with NorthStar only on the matter of ratings. Any focus group could inform corporate media that Armstrong Williams is among the most despised personalities in Black America – right up there with his old friend and boss, Clarence Thomas. That couldn’t be good for ratings among the important Black demographic – and Williams is so generally obnoxious we doubt that he’s a big draw among whites, either. No, corporate media boosted Williams because he reflects the worldview of corporate executives, the people who really run the show. USA Today
broke the Armstrong Williams scandal, but they previously ran his journalistically worthless column, week after week. He was speaking their language.
In broadcasting especially, “journalism” is rapidly ceasing to exist. The Williams affair presents us with the spectacle of irate “journalists” who daily package propaganda in service to the powerful, bristling with indignation over a propagandist who gets paid directly by those same powers.
“News” has devolved to a corporate product. Armstrong Williams is also a corporate product. He may still have some shelf life left.
Glen Ford and Peter Gamble
The Black Commentator
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES