Two Years Later, FCC Seeks to Fine Broadcasters Over Armstrong Williams

Commentator Was Paid by Ketchum to Promote No Child Left Behind

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- Two years after revelations that conservative commentator Armstrong Williams was paid $241,000 to pitch the Department of Education's No Child Left Behind program in media appearances, the Federal Communications Commission is proposing to fine Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sunshine Family Television for airing his programs without sponsorship disclosure.
Armstrong Williams
Armstrong Williams

The agency yesterday proposed a $40,000 fine on Sunshine for airing "The Right Side with Armstrong Williams" 10 times between Jan. 4, 2004, and July 5, 2005, on WBPH-TV, Bethlehem, Pa., and Sinclair $36,000 for episodes of "America's Black Forum" and "2004 Election countdown" on nine stations in September 2004. In all the telecasts Mr. Williams spoke of No Child Left Behind.

$100 per broadcast
The FCC said Sunshine had been paid $100 per broadcast, an amount the company argued was so nominal to not require disclosure. Sinclair wasn't paid at all but got the programming for free. The FCC notice argued that the program represented compensation of value and should have been disclosed.

The FCC also issued an official citation against Mr. Williams' Graham Williams Group, but no fine. The citation said the production of commentaries for TV and radio without disclosure violated FCC rules, and that further violations would incur fines of up to $11,000 per instance.

Mr. Armstrong, a prominent conservative commentator who wrote a newspaper column and also appeared on TV and radio, was hired by Ketchum, which had been directed to issue the contract by the Department of Education.

As part of the contract, Mr. Armstrong featured then-Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige in some of his programs and was supposed to produce some spots, but, according to the FCC, he also did commentaries about No Child Left Behind.

Episode caused furor
Revelations of the payments caused a furor that prompted media companies to drop Mr. Williams and complaints from Democrats about the Department of Education's spending and ethics.

Amid the uproar, Free Press, a consumer group active on media issues, filed a complaint with the FCC asking the agency to enforce its sponsorship-identification regulations against the stations.

FCC commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael J. Copps, both Democrats, praised yesterday's action, though they said it was late.

"Today the commission places broadcasters and cable operators on notice that the public deserves a clear statement on whether or not the programming they are watching is sponsored by a government or corporate interest," they said. "Growing abuses of the public trust in recent years are shaking Americans' confidence in the press. When pundits are paid to promote a corporate or government agenda while the public is never told, all commentators and journalists become suspect."

Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, praised the action. "It's about time that the FCC started enforcing these rules," he said.
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