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Flacking for Big Tobacco

The Other Armstrong Williams Scandal

by BOB BURTON

Conservative pundit Armstrong Williams has been under fire recently following revelations that he was paid $240,000 to promote the Bush administration’s "No Child Left Behind" law. However, it isn’t the first time that his media interests have been used as a mouthpiece for hidden interests.

Internal tobacco industry documents reveal that in 1996 Williams allowed his nationally syndicated radio program, The Right Side, to be guest hosted by Malcolm Wallop, the chairman of Frontiers of Freedom (FoF), a front group partly funded by tobacco companies.

Wallop proceeded to spend one third of the three-hour program as a platform to criticise a Food and Drug Administration rule aimed at restricting tobacco industry marketing aimed at youth, calling the rule an "abridgement of First Amendment rights."

In 1995 Williams Washington D.C. local talk radio program was syndicated to 60 stations around the country via the Talk America Radio Network.

Wallop, who retired as a Republican Senator from Wyoming in January 1995, founded Frontiers of Freedom immediately afterwards. In September 1995 he wrote to the Chairman and CEO of Philip Morris, Geoffrey Bible, notifying Bible that he would be "guest hosting the nationally syndicated" Armstrong Williams Show in October that year.

In his letter, Wallop emphasised that FoF was "committed to dramatic reform of the FDA and especially the total rebuke of President Clinton’s rule involving the FDA and the tobacco industry" and stated that "our executive Director, Jeff Taylor, has already spoken to Roy Marden about a Phillip Morris (PM) spokesperson coming on as a guest to speak about the FDA assault on the First Amendment." Wallop also noted other political objectives of FoF including the repeal of the Endangered Species Act and the privatization of Social Security.

The letter came with an attached funding proposal, and Wallop was effusive in thanking PM for $10,000 that the tobacco company had already given get his group off the ground. "Your help has been and continues to be most important to our ability to keep going strong," he wrote.

Three weeks later PM’s Roy Marden sent an e-mail around noting that in addition to PM’s Steve Parrish, other guests on the program would include Tom Hyde from R.J. Reynolds (RJR) and possibly someone from Brown and Williamson, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco.

Marden revealed that the journalistic approach by researchers for Williams’ program and FoF was to work collaboratively with its guests. "Armstrong Williams research staff is preparing info for Wallop as we speak, although it likely won’t take much as he seems to be up to speed on much of this. Whatever documentation they have will be faxed to me later this week, so Steve can get a specific handle on what they are likely to discuss".

Over at RJR, Maura Ellis wondered whether the panel Wallop was assembling was too heavily stacked with tobacco industry heavies to be credible. "Does this sound worth doing to you two? Too many tobacco people? What if we could recommend a third party to broaden the opposition base, rather than three manufacturers?" she wrote in an e-mail.

While the program was originally scheduled for October 1995, a later FoF document sent to the Lorillard Tobacco Company refers to it occurring in January 1996. "The three hour show featured one hour on the FDA rule on tobacco and its abridgement of First Amendment rights, one hour on privatizing Social Security with the argument that Social Security is a property right ­ the fruits of one’s own labor, and one hour on the anti-terrorism debate and privacy rights," FoF’s Taylor wrote.

The following year Wallop sent a funding pitch for $15,000 to Loews Corporation, highlighting his guest hosting of the Armstrong Williams show as one of the successes of Frontiers of Freedom’s year. "Like any professional public policy group, we try to match up our contributors with specific issue areas We see the FDA rule for exactly what it is ­ an abridgement of the First Amendment to make a political gain."

Wallop’s enthusiasm for the tobacco industry was not that far from the views of Williams himself. In a July 1996 column in the ”Washington Times”, Williams criticised moves by the Clinton Administration and the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco.

The Democrats, Williams complained, "have no qualms about imposing their tastes and preferences on America through legislation or the regulatory force of the Food and Drug Administration. They will even disregard the First Amendment to prohibit companies from advertising a product they dislike."

"I don’t thinks smoking is good, and I would never smoke myself. But I don’t think David Kessler and the Food and Drug Administration should make that decision for me," he wrote.

The relationship between Williams’ program and the tobacco industry had formed some time earlier. In late 1994 Bob Brown, the founder, CEO and Chairman of the North Carolina based African American public relations company B&C Associates, distributed a media kit touting Armstrong Williams syndicated radio talk show, The Right Side.

Williams had been B&C’s vice president for governmental and international affairs until he established his own PR company, the Graham Williams Group.

One recipient of Brown’s correspondence was John W. Singleton, Jr., the Manager of Public Communications over at the tobacco company, R.J. Reynolds. In an internal RJR memo, Singleton revealed that he harbored some concerns after reading a Washington Post article which stated Williams "has never drank, smoked, done drugs or used profanity."

While noting that he saw "little potential downside in providing him with background information on some of our important issues, especially those related to excessive government interference and personal freedom," Singleton wrote "I cannot help but wonder what someone so pure of spirit thinks of our industry."

By the time Singleton responded directly to Williams, he had been reassured. "We sincerely appreciate your willingness to make sure that on issues of public debate and controversy all points of view are considered," Singleton wrote to Williams on October 7 1994 attaching some background material on "key tobacco industry issues."

Williams also had direct contact with another tobacco industry giant, Philip Morris. In his capacity as CEO of the Graham Williams Group, he wrote a letter in late September 1994 to the Chairman of Philip Morris, William Murray, expressing concern that the company might cut its sponsorship of the 1995 Black Expo USA, which showcased African American businesses.

After thanking PM for its past support, Williams warned that the event would "not be possible without corporate support." In 1994 PM had given $135,000 for its sponsorship of the event. "You have demonstrated your serious commitment to the African American consumer in the past and I hope you will continue to do so," Williams wrote.

Edna Moore, PM’s Group Manager of Event Marketing, reassured Williams that there was no doubt about their ongoing support but explained that the review was to ensure that the Benson & Hedges cigarette brand "marketing objectives have been realized."

This week Armstrong has been eating humble pie this week for taking money to pen newspaper columns promoting the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind legislation. In a plea for understanding Williams stated that his company had never worked on a government contract before and "nor have we ever received compensation for an issue that I subsequently reported on." Without a listing of his current and past corporate advertisers, however, it is impossible to know whether there have been other undisclosed conflicts of interest.

And Williams has yet to apologize for allowing his radio program to be used by a tobacco industry funded group as a platform to attack FDA moves aimed at preventing youth from becoming the victim of the industry’s deadly products.

BOB BURTON writes for PR Watch.