White House payola?
Conservative commentator Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 by the Education Department in exchange for saying favorable things about President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education initiative. Though probably legal, such expenditure of public funds does raise eyebrows. It reminds one of the radio station-record company payola scandals of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which left many disc jockeys with a black eye. Who will end up looking worse, the commentator or President Bush? The White House denies it had anything to do with the department's decision... Glenn Reynolds' techcentralstation.com column rightly condemns this instance of subsidized advocacy, but he also puts it in context. For example, FDR persuaded journalists to spread propaganda in favor of an expanded income tax during World War II, exploiting patriotic sentiment. (Does that ring a bell?) It might be said that all the anti-smoking, anti-drug, anti-teen sex "nanny-state" propaganda campaigns of recent years set a precedent for this sort of thing. It depends on whether you favor the particular policy initiative or not. To his credit, Williams at least showed unqualified contrition for this lapse:
"Even though I'm not a journalist -- I'm a commentator -- I feel I should be held to the media ethics standard. My judgment was not the best. I wouldn't do it again, and I learned from it." [SOURCE: cnn.com]
This is dreadful for conservative reformers, but there is a silver lining. Beyond the breach of trust itself lies the question of why did the White House feel the need to resort to state-subsidized propaganda. Isn't "No Child Left Behind" good enough on its own merits, or are the deep conceptual flaws in it? Apparently, it was thought that since Williams is African-American, black people in inner cities would be more receptive to Bush's unorthodox educational reform initiative. Here in Virginia, which is conservative, a number of school districts have asked to be exempted from the program, which they feel puts undue stress on students and teachers, for an uncertain benefit in terms of real learning. If I weren't skeptical of public schools' performance in general I might be more sympathetic. In any case, it does highlight the dilemma that emerges whenever the Federal government tries to promote some social objective across many states whose cultures and values vary widely. That used to be the bugaboo of liberal busybodies in Washington; now it's the burden of the President's increasingly questionable "compassionate conservativism."
Rathergate: the final chapter?
Perhaps it is fortunate for Republicans that the Williams scandal was followed so closely by a scandal tarnishing their adversaries, or the final episode of an old scandal, that is. As a result of the independent investigation of the infamous "60 Minutes" forged documents scandal last September, which was conducted by former attorney general Dick Thornburgh (R-PA), Mary Mapes and three other employees of CBS news have lost their jobs. Rush Limbaugh pointed out that Ms. Mapes already has been offered a job with some cable television news outfit. Dan Rather never apologized for attacking those who brought this scandal to light, and he never admitted anything worse than poor judgment. As the report indicates, however, Mapes and others at CBS were driven from the very beginning by a fierce zeal to find dirt on President Bush. In other words, CBS was consciously working to stop the reelection of the President. Politicized, discredited news will be Dan Rather's sorry legacy (even if he is not sorry himself) when he leaves in March.
Time to Spray DDT?
Nicholas Kristoff had an interesting, counterintuitive commentary on the link between environmental and social issues in the New York Times. Whereas public attention tends to focus on dramatic, photographic, discrete human tragedies, there are many bigger preventable causes of death in the world. He says, "Mosquitoes kill 20 times more people each year than the tsunami did, and in the long war between humans and mosquitoes it looks as if mosquitoes are winning." He points out the kind of painful dilemma between competing values that many environmentalists would rather not face. Perhaps there is room for limited reliance on that toxic, bird-killing substance, as he urges, but it would only be appropriate in countries where state authority is widely respected. Because of ineffective government regulation, many people already are spraying DDT in many Third World countries. How much? Nobody knows.