Thanks, Armstrong - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Thanks, Armstrong

Thanks to the maneuverings of a single (formerly) syndicated columnist, the public is finally learning what a short road it is from Yes Man to Yes, I’ll Take a Check, Man.

It’s a lesson being reinforced hour by hour as Armstrong Williams appears on one television program after another issuing mea culpas for taking almost a quarter of a million dollars to help hawk the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind legislation — and, yet, steadfastly refusing to give the money back. In other words, he’s contrite, but not that contrite.

And, now, reveling in the scandal as if it were manna from heaven, the entire media establishment, left and right alike, is up in arms about this insidious example of what Frank Rich called in a recent New York Times column “pay-for-play propaganda.” A Denver Post editorial advised that “Congress should waste no time probing this latest abuse of your tax dollars at work.” The director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Media Center, Alex Jones, decried “propaganda masquerading as news, paid by government, truly a recipe from hell,” and California Democratic Rep. George Miller called the incident “worthy of Pravda.”

“Remember, this is taxpayer support for a propaganda mouthpiece,” Daily Kos‘s Markos Zuniga fumed. “If Scaife or whoever wants to pay conservative writers a quarter of a million dollars to push their agenda, that’s fair game. But using public funds to pay for it is out of bounds.”

Of course, how could anyone not agree with such basic moral declarations? Even those who felt the need to come to Williams’ defense prefaced it with an acknowledgment that he screwed up. (Some conservative commentators also attempted, less convincingly, to ameliorate Williams’s misdeed by comparing it favorably to Dan Rather’s.) I personally felt a rare moment of bipartisan kinship with David Corn of The Nation when he wrote, “it was a waste of taxpayer money to pay Williams for supporting the Bush administration, which he seemed quite willing to do for free.” Considering how many conservatives found the No Child Left Behind legislation an anathema and sell out to Ted Kennedy, it’s ironic that it is now being passed off as part of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy’s master plan. Thanks, Armstrong!

So apparently everybody is now on-board the “government propaganda is bad” wagon. This could be an exceedingly positive development if pundits’ moral compasses can hold their position into the next news cycle. There is, after all, a slew of government-funded propaganda beyond Armstrong Williams’s office window.

MUCH OF IT IS GIVEN a pass simply because large swaths of the media establishment have a romantic vision of the organization dispensing it or believes it is in the best interests of our society. Thus, it is rarely questioned and is a truly insidious form of propaganda, because those who press it on the rest of us have already absolved themselves of any moral qualms about it. Nevertheless, the idea that Armstrong Williams is the only shady propagandist being funded in America today is ludicrous. Even more so is the idea that the Bush Administration is the sole beneficiary of such influence. On its worst day the government-subsidized American Federation of Teachers reached more people against No Child Left Behind than Armstrong Williams.

For example, the Environmental Defense Fund, which lobbies against Bush Administration positions on everything from the Kyoto Accord to oil drilling in Alaska, received almost $350,000 in taxpayer dollars last year. In 2001, the League of Women Voters, which lobbies for affirmative action legislation and against Bush Administration environmental policies, received $20,000. Planned Parenthood, openly fighting what it calls George W. Bush’s “War on Women,” received more than $400,000 in taxpayer assistance. The National Council of La Raza, which opposes all sorts of immigration reforms, received $875,000 in government dollars in 2000. The AARP, fervent foes of Social Security and Medicare reform, received a staggering $73 million in a single year during the mid-’90s, according to the Heritage Foundation.

Further, as a 2001 Cato Institute report revealed, groups making up the Fair Taxes for All Coalition opposing Bush’s first-term tax cut — encompassing 170 groups as varied as the NAACP, NOW, and the National Council of Churches — took in $618 million in taxpayer money between 1996 and 2000.

Although federal law currently forbids government money from being used to lobby for more government money, researchers at the Cato Institute found such minor rules mattered little in the scheme of things.

“After all, money is fungible,” John Samples wrote in the 2001 report. “Government funds given for programs and services allow an organization to devote other money to advocacy efforts. The federal money also necessarily builds those organizations’ base of support and infrastructure, which enhances their advocacy efforts.”

And it’s probably only going to get worse.

“If you think Armstrong Williams is bad, wait ’til you get a load of the American Beeb [BBC], or the proposed $150 million ‘Center for Strategic Communication,’ which would dole out money to deserving bloggers, among others,” Reason magazine’s Matt Welch wrote in a recent column. “Hell hath no propagandist like a government on a mission.”

The overall cost of funding inherently political non-profit organizations is estimated, variously, as close to $40 billion and going up from there. That’s before we’ve even gotten into all the do-gooder “public service announcements” with questionable factual grounding and the government’s quiet payoffs to television shows that toe the official line.

SO, YES, BY ALL MEANS, let’s join together and pillory Armstrong Williams. But once he’s been flogged into giving back the taxpayer money he had no right to take (and the Department of Education had no right to give), let’s not stop there. Let’s get government money out of the political debate and let the chips fall honestly where they may. First and foremost, because, as Jefferson has been quoted ad nauseam, “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”

But, also, if the NAACP, AARP, NOW or any other non-profit group left or right is actually serving a purpose beyond issuing press releases and securing the salaries of its high-paid officials and directors, let them prove it by asking us for our money instead of laundering it through the government. We’re in tight enough financial straits as a nation that paying off patsies like Armstrong Williams and his lobbyist kin should be the first thing to go.

Now is the time, as the chattering classes all draw their (not so) bold lines in the sand, to follow up and ask them whether they will join in the fight against all government-subsidized advocacy. My guess is, as with civil liberties issues, only half the country will ever be interested in such reform, based on whether their guy is/isn’t the one pulling the strings. It’s always nice to have the machinery of government influence at your back, and never pleasant to stand in its wake. It’s no coincidence, after all, that calls for the dismantling of the National Endowment for the Arts ended when George W. Bush took office. Thanks to Armstrong Williams, perhaps the calls for ending government-sponsored propaganda won’t fall on the same bipartisan deaf ears.

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