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WASHINGTON — Free Press, the nonpartisan media reform group, has called on Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to launch an immediate investigation into undisclosed payments given to pundit Armstrong Williams by the Bush administration. Williams was paid to promote the No Child Left Behind Act and did so on national television and radio -- including dozens of stations owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group -- without disclosing the payments.

Tens of thousands of concerned citizens have already added their names to the letter, first circulated by Free Press yesterday, demanding an end to taxpayer-funded political propaganda and news distortion.

“This is not about liberals vs. conservatives. It is about the law and media industry ethics,” said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press. “Williams has issued a mea culpa in hopes this will go away, but the scandal is about more than journalistic ethics. Undisclosed payments to shape broadcast matter are illegal payola. Laws have been broken, and it’s time for Congress and the FCC to step in and answer some questions: How did this happen? Who else is on the government payroll? Why haven’t broadcasters been more diligent? Why aren’t we protected from such brazen attempts to manipulate public opinion?”

The Government Accountability Office has repeatedly chastised the Bush administration for using illegal “covert propaganda” in the form of “video news releases” offered to local broadcasters to be included on their nightly newscasts. These advertisements, disguised as journalism, complete with fake reporters, have been used to promote the Medicare prescription drug law and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The Department of Education turned to Williams and his syndicated news show, The Right Side. The government’s contract with Williams, part of a million-dollar deal with Ketchum Public Relations, required him to “regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts,” in which he interviewed Education Secretary Rod Paige. The contract also included a series of advertisements touting the law.

Given its record of brazenly slanted political content, it may come as no surprise that the biggest distributor of The Right Side was Sinclair Broadcast Group – which airs the show on 51 of its stations. Sinclair also employed Williams as a paid commentator on its “News Central” broadcasts. Among his assignments: An interview with Rod Paige.

A final question for investigators: how many other pseudo-journalists are on the take? "This happens all the time," Armstrong Williams told one reporter. "There are others."

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