Several Papers Nix Self-Syndicated Armstrong Williams Column

By: Dave Astor

A spot-check of the newspapers that had been publishing Armstrong Williams’ column indicates he may have a tough time self-syndicating, as he told E&P Friday he hopes to do.

Tribune Media Services (TMS) Friday terminated its contract with Williams after revelations that he accepted $240,000 from the Bush administration to promote the No Child Left Behind education-reform law on his TV and radio shows and that he mentioned NCLB at least four times last year in his column (See E&P Online, Jan. 7). Williams apologized, and he also told E&P he planned to try to continue his column via self-syndication starting today.

Using a list of newspaper clients on Williams’ Web site, E&P contacted 10 of them. Most of the papers reached will no longer use his column.

“He violated a public trust,” said Mary Ann Lindley, editorial-page editor of the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat, which ran Williams occasionally. “The competition is so keen that if you fall from grace, there are a million other people to choose from.”

Lindley added that she doesn’t think Williams is that great a writer, so it wasn’t hard for the Democrat to decide to no longer publish him. But she noted that the paper still would have dropped Williams even if it really liked his column.

Denney Clements, editorial-page editor of The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., did admire Williams’ syndicated feature but will drop it nonethess. “I loved his column, and it had a large following among our readers,” said Clements. “But it’s absolutely essential, regardless of a column’s ideology, for it to be seen as an independent voice that’s not shilling for the Bush administration or any other government or special interest.” Clements said he received a Williams e-mail containing an apology and information about the column being self-syndicated.

Beth Padgett, editorial-page editor of The Greenville (S.C.) News, said the paper decided to drop Williams Friday even before TMS announced the contract termination. “We’re not going to publish him again,” she said. Padgett noted that the $240,000 payment was related to Williams’ broadcast work, but “it still creates such an appearance of a conflict that we could not in good conscience continue his column. We don’t care if readers agree or disagree with a column, but we want them to have confidence that its opinions aren’t colored by any business relationship they’re not aware of.”

Mike Fitts, associate editor of The State in Columbia, S.C., told E&P that the paper will no longer run Williams’ column. “We feel he cost himself a great deal of credibility,” said Fitts. “He crossed a line.” But Fitts added that Williams will still be allowed to submit guest op-ed pieces, which the State would decide to run or not run as it would with any other submission. Fitts noted that Williams is from South Carolina, and has written non-TMS-syndicated pieces for the State in the past.

Several editors said they have no problem running op-ed pieces advocating for various interests as long as the bio clearly identifies the writer’s connection to an issue. Newspaper readers, until last Friday, weren’t aware that Williams and his shows had received U.S. Department of Education money.

Barbara Williams, editorial-page editor of The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., said she hadn’t been aware until E&P called that Armstrong Williams was going to try to continue his feature via self-syndication. The Post and Courier has no plans at this point to keep publishing the column, which it had not used often. But Williams said she would at least discuss the matter with others at the paper.

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