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> Columns > Boston Globe > Cleaning house on opinions for hire

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 community."

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.


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