Armstrong Williams is a black conservative. In some people's minds, that's enough to indict him of receiving funds to promote conservative causes, because we all know that no black person is intelligent enough to think for themselves and arrive at their own conclusions rather than towing the party line that the majority of black people hold on political issues. Well, little do we know, but the Bush Administration really has been paying him to be a conservative. At least that's what you'd think from the headlines I've been seeing, even on the so-called conservative Fox News. Virtually every headline I've seen distorts what went on. Here are the facts, as far as I've been able to discern. I'm not 100% sure on all of this, but the general sense is pretty clear.
Armstrong Williams is an opinion columnist who has a TV show. As an opinion columnist, he supported No Child Left Behind because he agrees with it, long before any connection with the particular issue at hand. Since he was someone who had that view, he was asked for some air time on his TV show by what turned out to be the Department of Education. He was surprised yesterday when this came out that it had a connection to the Bush Administration, however, as was Bush himself apparently. As far as he knew initially, it was an advertizing firm buying a time slot for their ads for No Child Left Behind. Then it turned out they were so popular or effective or something that the ad firm asked if they could buy time on his show for Rod Paige to appear in person to promote No Child Left Behind. At this point he must have been aware that there was a connection with the Education Department. However, I don't think he knew then that taxpayer money was paying for the ads. I'm not sure if it's clear that Rod Paige even knew what was going on in terms of money, since it was through this independent ad agency. I do think the DOE has a right to promote government policies, as has often happened, e.g. the ads against drugs or smoking. I guess the only issue here might be that they didn't say they were the ones paying for it, which should be investigated. To say that Williams was hired by the Bush Administration to promote No Child Left Behind seems just totally misleading, given what actually happened. The very headlines attempts to implicate Bush and those in his inner circle, when he and they may have had little to nothing to do with this.
Williams is now saying it was a mistake. He says he was treading in a gray area, not clearly in the right but not clearly in the wrong, which is enough for him to think that he wouldn't do it again if he had to do it all over. That seems right to me. He should say that. What others seem to be saying, though, is way out of hand. People are treating this as if Bush personally paid him to argue in his columns for certain views that he didn't himself agree with, which will of course fan the flames of those racists (whether black, white, or whatever) who think black people must all really be liberal and black conservatives must be Uncle Toms who are in the pocket of rich conservatives.
Update: Apparently the Rod Paige appearances were just video spots he'd recorded, so there's even no evidence that Williams knew the DOE had anything to do with it. This is looking less and less like a real story. Commercial radio often accepts ads on political issues from the government, and if the DOE wasn't aware that the ad agency had run these ads then they're not necessarily responsible, and if Williams didn't know it was the DOE, he might not be either. The most that could be said is that both sides should have checked into it further. As for the stipulation to talk about the issue from time to time, it's something he already would have done, but that's not really a problem anyway. NPR accepts such payments every day. The only issue is the connection with the government and whether the connections should have been pursued further.