Ideas for sale in the commentary arena

January 24, 2005

The affair of Armstrong Williams, the columnist and TV commentator who secretly took $240,000 to shill for Bush administration education policy, came and went with blinding speed.

Not only was the furor brutish and short, but it focused on the case’s most unusual elements — that it involved a black conservative, an explicit payoff, public money and straight-up propaganda. As The New York Times framed the issue: “The disclosure of the payments …intensified a debate over the prevalence of political opinion masked as editorial content in the paid public communications of the Bush administration.”

That’s one way of looking at it. The far bigger issue, and one reason I think the matter got so little attention, is that Armstrong Williams’ sin exemplifies a corruption that is all but routine in the arena of opinion and commentary: Somebody’s bankrolling all these supposedly independent voices, and we rarely know who.

Of the numerous articles I read on the case only a column by Chris Baker, in The Washington Times, hinted at the problem: “One of the dirty secrets of television news is that the producers who book pundits such as Armstrong Williams on their programs rarely ask the commentators about potential conflicts of interest.”

I suspect it’s a lot worse than that, and it isn’t just TV.

At times, the commentary arena is little better than an ethical brothel.

Reporters face mounting demands to come clean on entanglements, but TV’s shouting heads and the outside columnists who fill newspaper op ed pages face no such clamor.

Freelance a travel article to a reputable newspaper, as a veteran political consultant told me, and you must swear you didn’t get as much as a free Coke from the hotels you mention. But write a fierce opinion piece about some burning area of public policy — with vast consequences at stake — and nobody asks whether you have a client involved.

As readers, we don’t notice. We read the op ed column or watch the guest commentator, and we’re reassured to learn the pundit is an expert in arms control or health care policy, or is an ex-deputy assistant undersecretary, or a scholar-in-residence at some institute, or the co-author of some largely unsold book.

And it’s true, but it tells us nothing. We still have not a clue as to whom this person works for — and whether those learned observations were delivered pursuant to an arrangement with an undisclosed paymaster. Even formal affiliations may be just protective cover. The writer who’s a “fellow” of that high-sounding think tank may be financially beholden to a benefactor hidden behind the institutional curtain.

After the Williams affair broke, Judith Phair, head of the Public Relations Society of America, wrote on the organization’s web site that its Code of Ethics requires professionals to “fully disclose sponsors or financial interests involved in any paid communications activities.”

It’s a commendable statement. But political consulting deals — whether labeled corporate PR, lobbying or grassroots — do routinely obligate consultants to make sure that sympathetic commentaries are placed on respectable media outlets. (It’s not unheard-of for the writing to be arranged anonymously well before the prestigious author’s byline is rented.) This is never disclosed.

Some say the rules are different from pundits. Williams — who has insisted he said nothing he didn’t believe — claimed initially that because he was a commentator, not a journalist, he could keep the payments secret. In an interview President Bush, whose appointees were Williams’ bagmen, observed, “There needs to be a clear distinction between journalism and advocacy” — a puzzling remark. Did he mean money paid under-the-table to commentators precisely because the public thinks they’re independent isn’t deceitful?

Of course it is. There is such a thing as principled advocacy. And there is honest commentary that’s based on disinterested judgments and driven by conviction, not cash. What the Williams affair dramatizes is a regrettable institutional laxness the marketplace of opinion now suffers from.

It’s not hard to insist that pundits disclose conflicts and commitments, to insist that bylined authors actually do their own writing and that basic standards of honest discourse apply. And the beleaguered mainstream media would do well to set such standards now. Because with the jubilant proliferation of punditry on the Internet, it’s hard to see where else such standards would be set.

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