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January 13, 2005

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if this column had a sponsor? Doesnít that sort of defeat the purpose of trying to provide an opinion-oriented editorial?

Okay, so we do not live in Utopia, and all media sources are knowingly or unknowingly biased by their revenue sources. Still, I was a bit surprised when news broke last week of how the national education department had paid $240,000 to a well known conservative columnist to promote the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both parties are insisting the transaction was totally legal, and in fact was paid advertisement during broadcast opinion pieces done by Armstrong Williams. The White House indicated it was seeking methods to reach minority parents to teach them about the central piece of the federal education policy.

Williams, who is black, is facing backlash from the African-American community for his actions. Several media outlets have already dropped his columns and the National Association of Black Journalists is calling for the rest of his clients to follow suit.

I must say that the transaction, even if totally above the table, still gives the impression of impropriety. How can a political columnist except funding to promote a program, which he must in turn offer his unbiased opinion on, to his readers, viewers and listeners?

Wonder if Williams ever looks at the Consumer Digest magazine. Itís an interesting concept. The magazine does not accept advertising because it rates consumer products, giving an unbiased opinion on goods in an attempt to help buyers find the best appliances, tools, etc.

Iíve always felt like editorials were supposed to be like a consumer digest of politics and government. If this model is followed we will be replacing opinion pieces with infomercials. Was Williams really offering unbiased discussion of the national education policy or was he writing ad script as ordered by the $240,000 payment?

Still I find it amusing when the politicians jump on this bandwagon of outrage and start beating the drum against Williams. Iíd love to question all of these elected officials about their campaign contributions. Iím sure the same argument could be made by both embattled groups, stating we only accept contributions (bribes) from groups which we already support. There is no selling of votes or opinions going on here. Yeah, right.

I live in the real world. Money talks, and with out sponsors, contributors and advertisers, there would be no media. This little paper is a bit different than the big national media, because this columnist also happens to be the editor, publisher, photographer, ad salesmanÖ You donít bite the hand that feeds you. However that is exactly why we create political columnists, editorials and opinion pieces. This is sort of a last bastion for ďfree speechĒ, not in the First Amendment sense, but in the unpaid-for sense.


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