By: Dave Astor
With Scripps Howard News Service (SHNS) the latest distributor to drop a pundit for taking undisclosed payments, a question comes to mind: Is the main problem taking payments or not disclosing them?
SHNS Friday dropped columnist Michael Fumento of the conservative Hudson Institute for not disclosing he had accepted money from Monsanto in 1999. Fumento wrote in praise of Monsanto as recently as his Jan. 5 column.
“Disclosure is the most important thing,” said Creators Syndicate President Rick Newcombe. He noted that if a columnist hypothetically told Creators that he or she had taken money, “we would of course disclose it to the newspaper clients. If enough clients still wanted to run the column, we might not drop it.”
John Twohey, vice president for editorial and operations at Tribune Media Services (TMS), said: “Certainly accepting money from an entity you cover crosses a line. I can imagine exceptions, like going on the lecture circuit. But if columnists accept speaking fees from an organization they end up writing about, they would need to disclose that in the column.”
TMS was the syndicate that dropped Armstrong Williams a year ago after it was revealed that the broadcaster/columnist was taking money to promote the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind initiative. At around the same time, Maggie Gallagher of Universal Press Syndicate and self-syndicated columnist Michael McManus were also accused of accepting government money.
Would syndicates reduce the chance of payola scandals if they signed more Op-Ed columnists who have journalism backgrounds rather than, say, think-tank backgrounds?
“We prefer columnists with journalism backgrounds,” said Newcombe. “On the other hand, there’s no guarantee a journalist won’t plagiarize or do something else.”
Newcombe added that Creators has some columnists who are economists and/or from academia. These commentators don’t have journalism backgrounds, he said, but they have “brilliant minds” and deserve syndication.
With paid pundits Fumento and Copley News Service’s Doug Bandow recently being dropped (after Business Week Online revealed they had accepted money), will syndicates contact their columnists to remind them about staying on the up-and-up?
King Features Syndicate Managing Editor Glenn Mott said it’s possible the issue might come up “informally” when he talks to King columnists, but he has no plans to send out formal reminders.
At least one syndicate — TMS — sent out ethical reminders a year ago after the Armstrong Williams scandal. Twohey told E&P he doesn’t see a need to do that again at this point. “Our creators know what our expectations are,” he said.
Syndicate executives also noted that they already have ethical guidelines in place, and that they check columnists as much as they can before signing them.
“We do a thorough review before we take anybody on,” said Mott. “I trust the people we have.” He did add that King has it easier than some distributors in reviewing Op-Ed columnists because it syndicates a relatively small number of them (fewer than 10).
“I do a fair amount of screening before we sign a columnist,” said Newcombe, while observing that “any syndicate can get burned” no matter what it does.
Editor/General Manager Peter Copeland of SHNS declined to comment when reached by phone Friday. He did e-mail E&P Online a statement that read:
“Scripps Howard News Service requires writers to disclose any conflict of interest or even an appearance of a conflict in the stories and columns we offer to hundreds of newspapers.
“For three years, we have distributed columns by Michael Fumento, a fellow at the Hudson Institute. On Jan. 5, he wrote about biotechnology and the role of Monsanto. He did not tell SHNS editors, and therefore we did not tell our readers, that in 1999 Hudson received a $60,000 grant from Monsanto. The Hudson Institute said the grant was used to support Fumento’s work on a book he authored about biotechnology.
“Our policy is that he should have disclosed that information. We apologize to our readers.
“We learned of the grant from Fumento after he responded to questions from Business Week. We immediately suspended his column, investigated and severed our relationship with Fumento. His Jan. 5 column was the last to move on SHNS.”