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Cleaning house on opinions for hire
By Cathy Young | February 20, 2006
THE FALL OF master lobbyist Jack Abramoff has had reverberations
not only among Washington's political class, but also among journalists.
In the wake of revelations that two right-of-center opinion writers
had accepted payoffs from Abramoff to write articles favorable to
his clients, other pundits have become targets of suspicion. Some
in conservative circles want to clean house; others, to circle the
wagons and protect their own. For the good of conservative and libertarian
opinion journalism, the former should prevail.
First, in December, came the revelation that Doug Bandow, a senior
fellow with the Cato Institute and a syndicated columnist with the
Copley News Service, had taken money from Abramoff to write 12 to
14 articles in the past decade, for as much as $2,000 a column. A
second opinion writer, Peter Ferrara, was implicated in similar payoffs.
Laudably, the Cato Institute dismissed Bandow as soon as his misdeeds
were confirmed. (Full disclosure: I am an unpaid research associate
with Cato and did some paid work for the think tank more than 10
years ago.) Bandow, who also lost his column, took responsibility
for his ''lapse of judgment."
Not everyone followed that example. The Institute for Policy Innovation,
where Ferrara is a senior policy adviser, kept Ferrara on the payroll;
its president, Tom Giovanetti, was quoted as saying that critics
of the payoffs were using a ''naive purity standard." That's a funny
way to describe professional integrity.
The situation escalated recently when science journalist Michael
Fumento became the latest casualty of the scandals. Fumento lost
his syndicated column after Business Week reported that his 2003
book, ''Biotechnology," was subsidized with an undisclosed 1999 grant
of $60,000 from the agribusiness giant Monsanto, which he repeatedly
praised in the book and in several columns. Unlike Bandow and Ferrara,
he was never accused of taking payments for op-eds. (Here, some nonfinancial
disclosure is in order. I have known Fumento for many years, and
I deeply regret his predicament.)
Sadly, some conservatives are now defending the practice of opinion
writers serving as hired guns (hired quills?) for business and lobbying
interests. Among others, Iain Murray in The American Spectator and
Giovanetti in National Review Online (which, to its credit, has published
strong critiques of payola in punditry) claim that a witch-hunt against
conservative writers is afoot. Liberal pundits, they whine, are subsidized
by the media, major foundations, and the publishing industry, while
conservatives and libertarians have nowhere to go but to the corporate
trough. It is therefore in the interests of liberals to, in Giovanetti's
words, ''isolate conservatives from their natural allies in the business
The payola defenders pooh-pooh concerns about journalistic ethics.
Murray writes that an opinion piece ''does not seek to establish
a fact, but to win people over to a particular viewpoint or opinion," and
should be judged solely by the quality of the argument. He asserts
that to regard a journalist as tainted by taking money from those
on whose behalf he or she argues is an ''ad hominem" attack.
The fallacy of this ought to be obvious. An argument should be not
only convincing but intellectually honest. Undisclosed financial
interest in the slant of an article compromises a writer's intellectual
honesty and hence his or her credibility.
Part of the reason such arguments are possible is that journalistic
ethics are already in a pretty sorry state. Intellectual honesty
and fairness are not highly prized virtues in opinion writing these
days; there are many pundits whose commentary could not be more biased
if it was bought and paid for. Ideological zealotry can be no less
detrimental to intellectual integrity than financial interest. One
is reminded of a well-known verse by Humbert Wolfe written in the
1920s: ''You cannot hope to bribe or twist,/ Thank God! the British
journalist./ But, seeing what the man will do/ Un-bribed, there's
no occasion to."
Still, one must draw the line somewhere. Yes, some mainstream journalists
have uncritically channeled dubious claims by liberal groups championing
''noble causes" such as environmentalism or the fight against domestic
violence. But would it really make no difference if they were secretly
on these groups' payroll?
By Murray's and Giovanetti's logic, there is no essential difference
between opinion articles and the paid ''advertorials" that lobbying
groups, businesses, and political organizations sometimes place in
newspapers and magazines. The day I believe that, I'll be looking
for another line of work.