- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2005

One of the dirty secrets of television news is that the producers who book pundits such as Armstrong Williams on their programs rarely ask the commentators about potential conflicts of interest.

The world learned last week that Mr. Williams, a conservative pundit who hosts syndicated TV and radio shows, was paid $240,000 to promote President Bush’s education policies through a $1 million federal contract with the Ketchum Inc. public relations firm.

He talked up the president’s No Child Left Behind initiative on his own TV and radio programs, but he also went on other programs to tout them. He never bothered to disclose this to the people who booked him on those shows.

Make no mistake: Mr. Williams should have voluntarily offered this information. His explanation as to why he didn’t — he said he doesn’t consider himself a journalist — just doesn’t fly.

But shouldn’t the TV bookers have asked him about potential conflicts regardless?

TV bookers often do a “pre-interview” with guests before they schedule them to appear on a show, but they rarely probe pundits whose views are well known.

“In the case of someone like Armstrong Williams, we have certain expectations that we know enough about them beforehand,” said Matthew Furman, a spokesman for CNN, where Mr. Williams discussed No Child Left Behind on Oct. 18.

Mr. Williams said none of the TV producers who booked him on their shows to discuss Mr. Bush’s education policies asked him if he had a potential conflict. Even if they had, he said he probably wouldn’t have mentioned his contract with Ketchum.

“I don’t consider myself a journalist. I’m a conservative Republican commentator. That’s the role I’m expected to fulfill when I go on TV,” he said.

Compounding the lack of vetting of TV guests are deadline pressures, which often force producers to simply flip their Rolodex to the names of commentators who can be relied upon to deliver a required sound bite.

This is why the same faces — think Donna Brazile and Linda Chavez, to name two — appear on the same shows again and again.

You might think that, until now, no one would have expected pundits to not conform to this most basic of journalistic ethics.

But some commentators have long since proved themselves squirrelly about disclosure.

George F. Will appeared on ABC in 1980 to praise former California Gov. Ronald Reagan’s performance in a debate with President Carter. Later,the world learned Mr. Will had coached Mr. Reagan before the debate.

Last fall, when James Carville and Paul Begala weren’t advising Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, they were talking about his campaign as the co-hosts of CNN’s “Crossfire.”

Mr. Furman said his network hasn’t ruled out inviting Mr. Williams back as a pundit. He also said CNN may take another look at how it vets commentators before it puts them on the air.

Good idea, said Deborah Potter, president and executive director of News Lab, a nonprofit journalism training group.

“It behooves all of us to ask more questions these days,” she said.

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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