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Paying The Price
Pundit payola.


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Sharon Waxman of the New York Times called again last week, hoping I could help with the pundit-payola story she’s been working on in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal. Sharon had heard, correctly, that a public-relations person once offered me a thousand dollars to write an article slamming a lefty organization that a corporate client would enjoy seeing slammed. And also, incorrectly, that for a few minutes I’d actually considered cooperating.

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The truth, as I explained to Sharon, was that it had taken me a few minutes to even figure out what was going on. This was the first (and, I hope, last) time an offer to pay-for-play had come my way. (My favorite term is astro-turfing, since it perfectly describes the inorganic and fake nature of this sort of thing–the opposite of grassroots.)

Anyway, I could never consider this arrangement for even a second, and was shocked at the notion that anyone might. Nor could I really help the New York Times with its story, since I didn’t know which big p.r. firms were ultimately behind the offer, and was unwilling to get their factotum in trouble by giving Sharon his name. My quarrel isn’t with the spin shops that pay for op-ed space, but the journalists who accept it.

Not everyone thought I should have so quickly dismissed the deal. One friend asked, Why not take money to slam an organization that deserved slamming? A lawyer wanted to know the difference between a corporation paying for a hit piece on a rival, and a conservative publication paying for articles with the implicit understanding that they’ll be hit pieces on the left.

I don’t care if an organization I admire secretly offered me a million dollars to write an attack piece about an organization I loathe. I would still never consider getting involved in something like that. There are a lot of gray areas in journalism. This isn’t one of them.

Journalism may not really be a profession, and there aren’t a bunch of clear rules like in law that can get you disbarred if you break them, but this is still a matter of professional ethics and there’s one major line in this business you don’t cross–accepting money from either the subject of a story, or from someone (besides the publication you’re writing for) who has a vested interest in the subject.

I’m not talking about think tanks. That’s an alliance with a general philosophy, not a particular entity, and the columnist/think tank relationship is normally made clear in the columnist’s tagline.

Obviously, I’m an opinion journalist, not a beat reporter, and therefore everything I write comes from my own particular take on the facts. But readers realize that. (Except for the very stupid ones, who sometimes demand to know why I didn’t include their side of the story, or why I won’t discuss with them the enlightening websites they’re sure will change my mind.)

Anyone who bothers to even glance at my work has a right to expect that it comes from honest opinion and fair reporting, not a hidden financial agenda. Whatever agenda I have is my own, and it’s certainly not hidden. Nor is it, really, much of an agenda. It’s not like I begin every piece thinking, but is it good for the vast rightwing conspiracy?

So I have no sympathy for syndicated opinion columnists Doug Bandow, formerly of the Cato Institute and Copley News Service, or Michael Fumento, as of this writing still with the Hudson Institute but no longer with Scripps Howard. Fumento has long been suspected of accepting money from corporations he so admiringly opines about in his better-living-through-chemistry pieces, and now we all know for sure. Last week Business Week’s Eamon Javers, who also broke the Bandow story, reported that Fumento solicited $60,000 from Monsanto in 1999.

Fumento’s explanation to Javers about his Monsanto arrangement: “I’m just extremely pro-biotech.” Cue the old “Miracles and Molecules” theme song from Monsanto’s Adventure Through Inner Space, the defunct Disneyland ride that in the days of pricey E-tickets was always free. Although I guess if Fumento had been around then, maybe there would have been some kind of deal to pay visitors to go on it.

I’d like to see more criticism of op-ed payola from the right as well as the left, because people like Bandow and Fumento really aren’t doing their side of the political spectrum much good. Or even, when you think about it, the clients that pay them to write this pap. Has anyone read a pro-biotech piece–or anything about Indian gambling, Bandow’s paid-for pet cause–that doesn’t practically smell like solicited spin?

Instead we have someone like the pompous and insufferable Lawrence O’Donnell weighing in. Last week O’Donnell wrote a Los Angeles Times op-ed attacking Bandow’s patron Jack Abramoff as a particularly bad lobbyist and an example of pervasive rightwing corruption. Full disclosure: O’Donnell bulged his neck veins at me last year on Dennis Miller’s talk show, but if you think that’s the only reason I call him pompous and insufferable you may not have noticed he’s also executive producer of The West Wing.

The L.A. Times piece discussed an episode in which some lobbyist attempted to bribe O’Donnell when he was a senior Senate staff aide on the Finance Committee. It’s full of O’Donnell’s trademark touches, like the beside-the-point piety about his eleven-year-old daughter (things were better, O’Donnell muses, “way, way back when the Democrats had big majorities in the House and Senate–a lifetime ago, my daughter’s lifetime”), and the reminder that he must never be called “Larry.”

Then he explained that “there are honorable lobbyists,” such as those working for corporations trying to protect American jobs. This is indeed an honorable lobbying position. But another might be to outsource jobs and therefore save American consumers money. Why can’t they both be honorable as long as bribes aren’t involved?

It would be easier to argue this point, though, if there weren’t people on the right like Doug Bandow, Michael Fumento, the Institute for Policy Innovation’s Peter Ferrara, and who knows who else being paid a little something extra for their store-bought “thoughts.” So I’d like to see them censured from their own side in much harsher terms than they have been.

Otherwise we’re stuck with people like O’Donnell, who uses the reflexively lefty definition of “honorable” to mean “someone I agree with,” taking control of the discussion. And I don’t care how much you pay me, I can’t think of one reason why that’s a good thing.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.



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