FCC cites commentator Williams for payola

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. communications regulators cited conservative commentator Armstrong Williams on Thursday for violating a ban on “payola” in promoting the Bush administration’s education plan.

After investigating for more than 2-1/2 years, the Federal Communications Commission concluded that Williams and his firm violated agency rules by promoting President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” policy on television without disclosing they had been paid to do so.

Williams was not subject to any FCC fines for a first violation, as he and his company are not broadcasters.

But the agency said it did fine two broadcasting companies, including Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc, for airing programs distributed by Williams and his company without properly disclosing to viewers who had sponsored it.

Williams was not immediately available for comment. He has denied any wrongdoing but has acknowledged that the Education Department’s outside media firm paid $240,000 to promote No Child Left Behind during a television show he owned and hosted.

His company told the FCC the money paid for advertisements and not his comments on the broadcast programs. Williams has said he was a strong backer of No Child Left Behind and he was not influenced by outside parties.

A spokesman for Sinclair, which was fined $36,000 by the FCC, was not immediately available for comment.

The FCC said the company had argued it was not required to identify who sponsored the programs because it was not paid or promised any compensation for broadcasting it.

Sinclair also said it had no idea that “anyone had received or been promised consideration for inclusion of material in the program that it aired,” according to the FCC.

Sonshine Family Television Inc., the owner of a TV station in Bethlehem, Pa., was fined $40,000. Efforts to contact the company were not immediately successful.

The FCC’s two Democratic commissioners issued a statement saying the citation puts broadcasters and cable operators on notice that the public deserves a clear statement on whether the programming they are watching is sponsored by a government or corporate interest.

“It sends a clear message that the public has a right to know who is trying to persuade them so they can make up their own minds about what is presented to them,” commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps said.

U.S. law requires that radio or television stations, as well as individuals, disclose on air when they have received compensation to talk about a product or issue.

The law also requires that an employee of a station, who has been paid for putting material on the air, report that to the station, which is then required to disclose it on the air.