I said before that Armstrong Williams made a mistake. I was sort of issuing a challenge to anyone who might argue that he really did something worse than make a mistake. As I've looked at other sites, including liberals, moderates, black anti-black racists, black conservatives, etc., I've found a fairly univocal response. See The Moderate Voice for an excellent roundup following a fairly standard version of what's being said by most people. Everyone seems to be ignoring the facts, taking Williams to have done something he didn't do, taking the Bush Administration to have done something they didn't do, and exaggerating or even outright inventing nonsense to make him out to have the bad motives black conservatives are often accused of having. As I've looked more into this and continued to read what people across the map are saying, I've become less convinced that what Williams did was was even that wrong to begin with. I said it was a mistake because he did. I insisted that it was less of a problem than people were saying, but I did think it was a mistake. Then I looked at the facts. Now I'm not sure sure there was anywhere near as much of a real problem as I had first thought.
Here's what Amstrong Williams did. He accepted money from Ketchum, an independent PR firm, to do two things. One was to run an advertisement they had created to promote No Child Left Behind. The other was to talk about his views on NCLB and encourage other black conservatives to do so, something he already would have done, though perhaps this encouraged him to do it more. I see no problem with the first. A PR firm can buy as many ads as they want, and he is not unethical to accept their money for it. The second is at most a gray area. He's a pundit with a view. They included with their ad money a request to talk more about it and ask others to do so. I don't see how that's corruption of the sort people keep pretending this is. It's just a request to get him to talk more about something he already feels very strongly about and to request that others who also feel strongly about it would talk about it too. If someone paid me money to talk more about abortion on my blog, I'd accept it. It's fairly common in the media, in fact. NPR does that sort of thing all the time. Their donors stipulate coverage of certain issues. The only worry here is whether he should have said someone was paying him money to talk more about that issue. He probably should have, but I don't see that as a major ethical problem. Being a little more honest would show more character, but this isn't corruption of the more serious kind that people are accusing him of.
Now I haven't said anything about the role of the government in this. That's because he didn't know about that until he saw the headlines. I don't think he can be blamed for not knowing that Ketchum had been hired by the Department of Education (which is not to be identified with the Bush Administration, as some headlines have mistakenly done, though it is a branch of the Bush Administration, mainly because saying it was the Bush Administration gives the implicature that the Bush Administration as a whole was behind it rather than some small group within one department, as is most likely). There's little more to say about that.
The one other factor that's worth looking into is whether there was wrongdoing from the governmental end of things. Most people who have attributed less wrongdoing to Williams have insisted that Bush is at fault here. Even ignoring what I just said about those misleading claims of Bush's involvement, I'm not so sure that the Education Department officials who initiated this were wrong to do so. This is a longstanding government tradition. When Reagan was president, the government hired PR firms to run ads in favor of their drug policies, which were certainly popular among many people but not without controversy. Bush's father and Clinton did the same sort of thing. Perhaps it goes significantly before Reagan even. I have no idea. I do know that it's a fairly normal practice. That the Department of Education would hire a PR firm to run ads promoting the No Child Left Behind program is pretty much in the same vein.
So across the board we've got people saying false things and assigning moral wrondoing that goes well beyond what actually happened. None of it is in accord with the facts. Saying that the White House or the Bush Administration paid him to argue its case is misleading in two ways. Most people reading that statement will assume it was a direct payment, and he knew the source, which is false. Most people would also assume that he wouldn't have already made the case for that program, which is false. That means that those saying that are making misleading statements. Calling it a bribe is equally misleading (and probably just false).
Now I shouldn't have to say this, but far worse than anyone I've complained about so far are those racists (whether white, black, or whatever) who have been using this as a means to promote their hateful agenda that black conservatives are sellouts and mere tools of the Republican leadership to spout off views they don't agree with. I won't link to this, but there's a link to an example here. They use racist stereotypes from the Civil War period when making these claims. They paint with a broad brush every black conservative when the charges they're issuing may not be true of any black conservative and certainly isn't true of most of them. They aren't even true of Armstrong Williams, whom they're now using to criticize all black conservatives.
La Shawn Barber and others have been complaining that Williams has now opened the door to this sort of thing by giving them something like what they say that actually has a basis in fact. I think I've said enough in this post to show that that's not true, and anyone who says what they're saying is engaging in one of the lowest forms of evil known to humanity, the deliberate false testimony against someone to defame their character. I place it so low on the list not because its consequences are the worst (compared to, say, the Holocaust or American slavery) but because the motivations are among the lowest possible. It's one thing just to be indifferent to someone and want to use them as a means to an end. It's quite another to desire that they have bad things happen to them for its own sake, and that's what this requires. I understand that something behind what La Shawn is saying is true. She's right that this incident has given these racists a new thing to talk about to promote their evil. She's wrong that he handed them something that legitimately allows them to do so. They are immoral in using it that way, and that immorality is far worse than anything Williams did even if the charges against him that I've been disputing are completely accurate.
See also Classical Values for a very different approach saying much the same thing. Full disclosure: Classical Values and Parableman link to each other.