Right-Wing Pundit Reeling

Right-Wing Pundit Reeling

Armstrong Williams is at the center of a firestorm that now includes anti-gay charges

Amidst the firestorm of controversy surrounding the admission of Armstrong Williams, a leading conservative pundit with regular appearances on CNN and other television broadcasts, that he received a lucrative contract from the Department of Education to help promote the Bush administration’s education initiatives, more details have emerged about Williams’ opposition to same-sex marriage and gay rights.

On January 9 in his column, Williams acknowledged that his acceptance of the government money created a conflict of interest, but said the payment was intended for advertising on his programs and was not an illegal transaction. Nevertheless, Tribune Media Services halted distribution of his weekly column. In a mea culpa, of sorts, Williams wrote, “Even though I’m not a journalist— I’m a commentator—I feel I should be held to the media ethics standard.

Williams has said he understands why his critics perceive the education department payment as unethical, but defended his stance on school vouchers. “I wanted to do it because it’s something I believe in,” Williams told USA Today.

Williams is the principal of a Washington, D.C. publicity firm, the Graham Williams Group that he founded with Oprah Winfrey’s boyfriend, Steadman Graham.

USA Today reported on January 8 that Williams, one of the nation’s most prominent African-American conservative voices, had received a $240,000 payment from the education department to include regular one-minute announcements by the department’s secretary, Rod Paige, on his television and radio programs, and for Williams to advocate for the No Child Left Behind Act. Williams is the host of “The Right Side,” a television program broadcast by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, where he was expected to generate support among black families for school vouchers and standardized testing. Since its passage early in the Bush administration, some public education advocates, including teachers’ unions and elected officials, have decried the law as over-emphasizing testing to the detriment of other learning priorities.

Williams serves on the advisory board of the Black Alliance of Educational Opportunities, whose mission is largely to generate support for school vouchers in school systems with large populations of African-American students. Voucher advocates claim that many public schools systems have failed to educate students in traditional school settings, and therefore families are entitled to have local government pay for students’ tuitions in more competitive private schools.

Williams once worked for former South Carolina Republican Senator Strom Thurmond and is a protégé of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, another staunchly conservative Washington insider.

In his column and on television, Williams has spoken out against same-sex marriage and denounced the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas that overturned that state’s anti-sodomy statute that targeted gay men. Williams said the legalization of gay sex was an erosion of cultural values, not the protection of private liberty.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that the White House cannot comment on the payment issue since the Department of Education handled the agreement. Three Democratic senators—Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Harry Reid of Nevada—have called on Pres. George W. Bush to demand that Williams return the money to the federal government.

In addition to the payment, Williams was also granted a seat on the President’s Commission for White House Fellowships.

Two prominent New York-area African Americans serve on the board of directors of the Black Alliance for Educational Opportunities, Rev. Floyd Flake, a Queens minister and former Democratic congressman, and Cory Booker, a Newark, New Jersey attorney and former mayoral contender against long-term Mayor Sharpe James.

Flake is president of Edison Charter Schools, which operates for-profit charter schools in 21 states and the District of Columbia. During his time in Congress, Flake was the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus to support school vouchers and he heads an organization that stands to gain financially from a widespread privatization of the public school system.

Leon Tucker, the communications director for BAEO, never returned a phone call seeking an explanation of Williams’ involvement with the board.

In another aspect of the firestorm surrounding Williams, an editor for The Nation, David Corn, posted on his Web site the account of a former intern, Andrew Ackerman, who once interviewed with Williams for a writing job. Ackerman wrote that after graduating from Emory University last May, a friend suggested he interview with Williams, an experience he described as an extremely awkward episode.

In a telephone interview from California with Gay City News, Ackerman indicated that in the 50-minute interview with Williams the two discussed books, and Williams acknowledged that he wanted to hire someone who would provide “oppositional views” as a ghostwriter for some of his columns. Williams, he said, asserted that there is a “grievance culture” in the black community, and asserted that he has never encountered racism.

Ackerman said he had heard rumors that Williams had settled a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a male employee and he simply assumed Williams is gay.

They never discussed his writing credentials, said Ackerman, who graduated with degrees in journalism and history, and who wound up not working for Williams. “He just had this weird focus on gay marriage,” said Ackerman. “He asked me if I supported same-sex marriage, and I said, ‘Yeah, I support it.’ So then he said, ‘Well, let me ask you. Do you support sex between a man and an animal—bestiality? This is a slippery slope, legalizing gay marriage,’” said Ackerman. “Then, he switched subjects and said 70 percent of gay couples who adopt kids molest them, and I disagreed and asked where he got such statistics,” said Ackerman. “Basically, he’s a nice guy,” added Ackerman, “but he’s a parrot for whatever right-wing interests he represents. He’s not an intellectual. He’s an ideologue.”

David Corn, a left-leaning writer, has debated Williams on several occasions. “The fact that the Tribune Company dropped Williams’ column indicates that there is more here than just the appearance of a conflict of interest,” said Corn in a telephone interview. Corn also said that he believes Williams has a certain fixation with same-sex marriage. “He talks about it a lot,” said Corn. “He and I have had several conversations about it when it’s not really the topic of conversation at hand.”

Liberal journalists and public policy groups have de-nounced Williams for accepting taxpayer money to promote an administration initiative.

People for the American Way, a progressive, public policy think tank, has produced a report on the Black Alliance for Educational Options, outlining the group’s unusually expensive expenditures on pro-voucher ad buys in various newspapers and outlets. The report also describes Williams as “opposing affirmative action and gay rights.”

Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat and ranking member on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, has requested that the inspector general of the Department of Education initiate an investigation as to how taxpayer money wound up in Williams’ hands. Tom Kiley, a Miller spokesman, said that the congressman “believes the law and the law says you can’t use taxpayer’s money for propaganda.” The committee chairman, Rep. John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Williams also did not answer a telephone message left with a receptionist at the Graham Williams Group.