How’s this for subtle stifling of dissent? the Department of Education, through a PR firm cutout, paid a nationally syndicated television pundit almost a quarter of a million dollars to push the No Child Left Behind program:

The campaign, part of an effort to promote No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required commentator Armstrong Williams “to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts,” and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004.

Williams said Thursday he understands that critics could find the arrangement unethical, but “I wanted to do it because it’s something I believe in.”

Forget Tax cuts. Stop this crap and we’ll save some real money. More odious, however, is the Administration’s cavalier manipulation of public opinion by using a perceived independent commentator to shill for an Administration program. That he failed to disclose his bought-and-paid-for relationship to the Administration is damning fo both Armstrong Williams and to the Administration. It also begs the question of how many other “journalists” out there are pushing Administration positions while being paid sub rosa for their support?

By the way, he is keeping the $240,000.

UPDATE: Tribune Media Services, who syndicates Williams, has terminated its contract with Williams:

In a statement, TMS said: “[A]ccepting compensation in any form from an entity that serves as a subject of his weekly newspaper columns creates, at the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest. Under these circumstances, readers may well ask themselves if the views expressed in his columns are his own, or whether they have been purchased by a third party.”

That’s about right.

ANOTHER UPDATE: According to friend Glenn, The government has done this before, for example, spending millions during the Clinton Administration to insert anti-drug messages into network television shows. I don’t think much of that either, but I think one can distinguish between entertainment shows and what is passed off as “news” or “news commentary.” It’s easy to say “trust, but verify,” but in practice, on-the-fly fact-checking news shows or determining the honesty/integrity of news commentators and pundits, is well-nigh impossible. In the spirit of good faith and fair play, potential conflicts in such shows must be disclosed.

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