With the Education Department still defending its $240,000 contract with syndicated columnist and TV personality Armstrong Williams, White House spokesman Scott McClellan was cautious in choosing his comments.
"Questions have been raised about that arrangement, it ought to be looked into, and there are ways to look into matters of that nature," McClellan said. The spokesman did not say precisely who should look into it, and stopped short of backing an inquiry by the department's inspector-general, as some lawmakers have sought. He noted that department lawyers have taken up the matter.
McClellan said the news media "ought to be reporting in an objective, unbiased and fair manner."
"The government certainly has a responsibility to help when it comes to providing accurate information and helping to adhere to that principle," he said.
McClellan said he knew of no other contract in the administration like the one Williams had. He also hinted that Williams shared the blame.
"There are also questions about whether or not this commentator should have been disclosing the information publicly," McClellan said.
The contract required Williams' company to produce radio and TV spots featuring one-minute "reads" by Education Secretary Rod Paige and to allow Paige and other department officials to appear as studio guests with Williams.
The commentator also was to use his influence with other black journalists to get them to discuss No Child Left Behind, a centerpiece of President Bush's domestic agenda, which aims to raise achievement among poor and minority children and penalizes many schools that don't make progress.
The Education Department defended its decision as a "permissible use of taxpayer funds under legal government contracting procedures." The point was to help parents, particularly in poor and minority communities, understand the benefits of the law, the department said.
Williams, who worked as an intern to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond years ago, called criticism of his relationship with the department "legitimate."
"It's a fine line," he said. "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."
This is not the first time the department has come under fire for its publicity efforts.
The Bush administration has promoted No Child Left Behind with a video that comes across as a news story but fails to make clear the reporter involved was paid with taxpayer money. It has also has paid for rankings of newspaper coverage of the law, with points awarded for stories that say Mr. Bush and the Republican Party are strong on education. The Government Accountability Office, Congress' auditing arm, is investigating those spending decisions.
"There is no defense for using taxpayer dollars to pay journalists for 'fake news' and favorable coverage of a federal program," said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, a liberal group that has tracked the department's spending. "It's a scandalous waste."