A conservative columnist has been dropped by a major syndication service because he accepted a payment from the Bush administration to promote a federal education law to fellow blacks and to give the education secretary media time.
Armstrong Williams, one of the nation's leading black conservative voices, has acknowledged that a company he runs was paid US$240,000 by the Education Department to promote the "No Child Left Behind" law, and he called criticism of his relationship with the department "legitimate."
Tribune Media Services said it told Williams on Friday that it was halting distribution of his weekly newspaper column.
The company, a subsidiary of the Tribune Co, said it accepted his explanation that the payment was for advertising on his radio and television programs.
"Nevertheless, 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. 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," a statement said.
Williams also hosts a radio show and appears regularly on CNN as a commentator. CNN said it would evaluate the situation, pointing out that Williams has no formal contract with the network.
"We will consider very seriously this issue before booking him as a guest again," said CNN spokeswoman Megan Mahoney.
A contract required Williams' company, the Graham Williams Group, to produce radio and TV spots featuring one-minute "reads" by Education Secretary Rod Paige and to allow Paige and other department officials to appear as studio guests with Williams.
Williams also was to use his influence with other black journalists to get them to discuss "No Child Left Behind," a centerpiece of President George W. Bush's domestic agenda, which aims to raise achievement among poor and minority children and penalizes many schools that don't make progress.
The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) expressed disappointment in Williams, who is not a member of the group.
"I thought we in the media were supposed to be watchdogs, not lapdogs," said NABJ Vice President-Print Bryan Monroe, assistant vice president-news at Knight Ridder.
"I thought we had an administration headed by a president who took an oath to uphold the First Amendment, not try to rent it."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday that the decisions on the contract were made by the Education Department.
The Education Department defended its decision as a "permissible use of taxpayer funds under legal government contracting procedures." The point was to help parents, particularly in poor and minority communities, understand the benefits of the law, the department said.