The lobbyist and the media

January 9, 2006

Beneath the glare of high-stakes political corruption, the unfolding scandal of former lobbyist and current felon Jack Abramoff has a media angle too, which involves his low-light stable of secretly paid commentators.

It’s a story that has grown familiar. Exactly a year ago, after disclosures that the Bush administration had slipped a columnist and broadcaster named Armstrong Williams $240,000 to plump for its education policies, I suggested in a column that the Op-Ed pages of a typical newspaper were an ethical brothel. It’s where outside experts, analysts and wordsmiths strut their stuff, claiming to be driven by love and principle, rarely admitting publicly that they’re getting paid under the sheets for their ardor.

In the Abramoff affair, a prominent figure has been Doug Bandow, a syndicated columnist with Copley News Service and a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute. Bandow had been a favored scribe for causes dear to Abramoff’s clients, and admitted accepting money from the lobbyist — up to $2,000 a pop — for 12 to 24 columns that were published since the mid-‘90s.

Bandow has been remorseful. Other members of Abramoff’s brain trust have been less so. Peter Ferrara of the conservative Institute for Policy Innovation told BusinessWeek Online that he too took money from Abramoff for opinion pieces. “I do that all the time,” Ferrara said. “I’ve done that in the past, and I’ll do it in the future.” While Bandow was fired by Copley and Cato, Ferrara’s boss defended him and said critics were applying “a naïve purity standard.”

Media coverage, predictably, has focused almost exclusively on the writers who accepted Abramoff’s money. But what about the newspapers that accepted their work? Do editors really believe the $200 they pay for that sophisticated column defending the health insurance industry actually covers the cost of the work the column required? Of course not. But it’s, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” They say nothing, because their work depends on this payola.

In a front page story last month, The New York Times reviewed recent opinion pieces secretly subsidized by industry advocates. The Times focused on a conservative think tank called the Institute for Policy Innovation and cited columns published by the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal while, unbelievably, devoting not a syllable to The Times’ own practices and rules regarding Op-Ed funding and conflicts of interest.

To be fair, formulating such rules isn’t so easy any more. That’s because there’s a big, vexing problem underlying what appear to be clear-cut instances of wrongdoing. Today’s journalist and commentator, in this converged, go-go, multi-media era we’re entering, is likely to be bobbing and weaving an entrepreneurial career out of all kinds of different threads. He or she may write lengthy reporting pieces for magazines, punch the clock as a consultant on publishing projects for corporate clients, teach a course at the community college, offer online commentary via blogs and hunt for speaking fees to address chambers of commerce. Traditional fulltime employment may not be an option.

Doug Bandow himself, in a thoughtful mea culpa in The Los Angeles Times, described his own career after he left the Reagan White House as consisting of “a patchwork of jobs.” He recalled: “I ghostwrote Op-Ed articles, drafted political speeches, prepared internal corporate briefings and strategized business media campaigns. All the while, I also wrote commentary and opinion pieces. Clearly, the ethical boundaries in all this aren’t always obvious. Virtually everyone I worked with or wrote for had an ax to grind.”

Traditionalists like me shudder at the cascading opportunities such a career mosaic provides for ridiculous conflicts of interest. But while it’s still possible for, say, a newspaper’s ethics code to simply forbid its employees to moonlight, it’s no longer feasible to apply such a prohibition universally to the journalism profession — which for many practitioners is morphing into one long series of moonlightings.

So what should the rules be? I don’t know, but I think they should start with the idea that the distinction between principled argument and paid propaganda is worth upholding, and you can’t offer the one masqueraded as the other. Claiming that convictions are still your own even if somebody else is paying you for them isn’t tenable. Your paymaster must be identified.

But even with disclosure, the picture will be murky. If mainstream journalism and commentary becomes the work of professional wordsmiths who are perpetually on the hustle the challenge to ethical journalism will be severe. The future of a practice that’s dedicated, however imperfectly, to truth-seeking in the public interest, and which tries to stay free of undisclosed personal entanglements and conflicts, will be far from sure.

Correction: This column should have made clear that Peter Ferrara accepted money from Jack Abramoff during a period before Ferrara joined the Institute for Policy Innovation, and that the Institute prohibits such pay-to-play arrangements.

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