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Inside Politics

Columnist axed after taking cash to promote Bush plan

Commentator Armstrong Williams accepted federal payments to push the No Child Left Behind Act.
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CNN's Bill Hemmer interviews TV commentator Armstrong Williams
George W. Bush
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Tribune Media Services will stop distributing columns written by conservative commentator Armstrong Williams because he received money to promote President Bush's education programs, the company said.

Meanwhile, the nation's largest African-American journalists' organization has asked other media outlets that use Williams' work to do the same.

Williams confirmed Friday that he received $240,000 from the Department of Education in exchange for promoting No Child Left Behind, the centerpiece of Bush's education agenda. Williams said the payment was merely for advertising time.

The department defended the deal, claiming its public-relations contractor "sought avenues to reach minority parents."

"The contract paid to provide the straightforward distribution of information about the department's mission on No Child Left Behind, a permissible use of taxpayer funds under legal government contracting procedures," according to a department statement.

The National Association of Black Journalists also called on the White House to rebuke the department's employees.

In a statement, the group of 4,000 members called on all broadcast and print media that carry Williams' work or use him as a commentator -- a group that includes CNN -- to "drop him immediately."

"I thought we in the media were supposed to be watchdogs, not lapdogs," said Bryan Monroe, a vice president of the association. "I thought we had an administration headed by a president who took an oath to uphold the First Amendment, not try to rent it."

Williams is African-American, but NABJ said he is not a member of the organization.

Tribune Media Services, which distributes Williams' column, released a statement saying it was dropping him.

"Accepting 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," the company said. "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."

Williams' failure to notify TMS of his receipt of the payments violates his syndication agreement, the company said.

Williams told CNN Friday that some might feel his actions were unethical, but "it was advertising."

Still, he acknowledged the appearance of impropriety.

Williams said his company taped a one-minute commercial with Education Secretary Rod Paige, and he had two one-minute commercial spots in Williams' shows. He said many of his affiliates do not use paid advertising, instead airing only public service announcements.

"He's lost his credibility," said Barbara Ciara, another vice president of the NABJ. "He's tainted fruit. And he's unfairly indicted all commentators who have their own independent opinion, don't need a script from the administration and don't need to be paid off."

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