In January 2005, USA Today revealed that a U.S. Department of Education contract paid Williams to promote Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation on his TV show and to ask other African American journalists to do likewise. Democrats and media activists were appropriately outraged at such blatant and hidden government propaganda. A January 7, 2010, report by Marcy Wheeler on her Firedoglake blog exposed the similar failure of the Obama Administration and influential MIT economist Jonathan Gruber to fully and consistently reveal Gruber's role in receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars as a paid consultant to the Obama Administration, while promoting Obama's health care legislation.
Roff, a long-time Republican activist and right wing pundit, notes that in the William's payola scandal "senior Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives wrote to President George W. Bush expressing their outrage. In one of those letters, then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Reps. Henry Waxman, George Miller, David Obey, and Elijah Cummings denounced the payments made to Williams under a government contract as 'illegal covert propaganda' intended to influence the American electorate."
What a difference partisanship makes now that Obama is president. In the Gruber scandal prominent liberals including New York Times columnist Paul Krugman have attacked the messenger, Marcy Wheeler and Firedoglake, rather than criticizing the lack of disclosure and the money changing hands, and digging further into the relationship between Obama and his paid health care advocate Jonathan Gruber.
Who else is receiving convenient Administration funding while flacking "independently" for Obama policies? In a democracy, we need to know and we have a right to know, no matter which party controls the White House.
While partisan Democrats might chafe at how this issue provides fodder to Fox News, Grover Norquist and others on the Right, in this instance Roff's point that this should have been disclosed, or never happened, is correct and the blame should be placed on the administration. Jonathan Gruber has been a key third party advocate for Obama's legislation and this is a classic propaganda tactic. Gruber is someone trusted and pawned off on the press and public as independent, but with a lucrative and not so transparent financial relationship to the person whose position (in this case Obama) he is supporting.
In many ways Jonathan Gruber is much more effective as a propagandist than Armstrong Williams. That's because Gruber is a respected, 'independent' academic and expert. (Or at least we are supposed to think he is independent. Indeed, much of the respect he's been accorded relies on the belief that he is an independent academic.) Williams as a TV pundit carried much less respect from the get go. Gruber as an advocate is much more impacting, as long as the mirage of independence can be maintained. Otherwise it becomes obvious that he has a vested interest in promoting what Obama is peddling. I co-authored a 2001 book for CMD on this topic of the third party propaganda technique, titled Trust Us We're Experts.
Gruber himself, in his finer and less public moments, has described being a "paid consultant to the Obama Administration." Unfortunately, that relationship was not very visible or publicly recognized until Marcy Wheeler blew her blogger's whistle. She deserves praise, not derision, and this case deserves investigation, not the back of the hand from Dems whose silence makes them appear quite comfortable with government propaganda when it's their president.
John Stauber is a writer and activist. His views are his own.