Conflict of interest

One of the basic tenets of journalistic practice is that a journalist should be independent.

That is, a journalist should not work for any person or organization except the news organization that he or she represents. That tenet holds for editorialists as well as reporters. An editorial writer or columnist may express opinionated or partisan points of view, but there should always be a distance between the journalist and those who are being covered or commented upon.

Armstrong Williams apparently did not understand this tenet of journalist (or he did understand it and chose to ignore it), and that has landed him in hot water with his professional colleagues and one of his employers, Tribune Media Services. Williams accepted $240,000 from the Bush administration to espouse favorable opinions about Bush’s No Child Left Behind educational plan. (USA Today: Education Dept. paid commentator to promote law)

He did not disclose that fact and is now facing blistering criticism from other journalists, such as the National Association of Black Journalists. Williams has been dropped as a columnist by the Tribune Media Services, which distributes his newspaper column to many newspapers around the nation. (TMS statement terminating its contract with Williams.)

(Posted January 8, 2005)

Update: Williams appeared on the Washington Post’s Live Online discussion on Monday, Jan. 10, and took responsibility for his ethical failure: “I’m a principled columnist and commentator but yet I’m ashamed that my bad judgment has cast a black shadow on my name. Where I go in the future depends on my credibility and never violating journalistic ethical standards again. I’ve learned from this, the most important thing being it is far more important to maintain my integrity and ethics as a media pundit than to concern myself with generating dollars as a entrepreneur (sic).”

Williams said he did not think he had done anything illegal: “Simply bad judgment that crossed a gray area of ethics. My bad judgment was an omission but I never intended to deceive or mislead anyone.” It’s hard to believe that Williams did not know what he was doing when he took the money to conduct the interviews with the Secretary of Education about No Child Left Behind, but that’s what he says.

(Posted Jan. 10, 2005)

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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