Pundit Payola: Syndicates Work to Prevent More Problems

By: Dave Astor How are syndicates protecting themselves from a future Maggie Gallagher or Armstrong Williams situation? By putting together conflict-of-interest guidelines, sending letters to their columnists, and hoping that already-existing ethics clauses in contracts and self-policing by creators keep things on the up and up.

The Washington Post revealed Wednesday that Gallagher received $21,500 in 2002 from the Department of Health and Human Services for marriage-themed writing projects. Earlier this month, USA Today reported that Williams received $241,000 in 2004 from the Department of Education to promote the No Child Left Behind education act. Williams' column contract was terminated by Tribune Media Services (TMS); Gallagher was kept on by Universal Press Syndicate.

"All the syndicates are concerned about who might be exposed next," an executive at one said yesterday. Sure enough, Salon.com reported a few hours later that "Ethics & Religion" columnist Michael McManus received about $10,000 from the HHS for subcontracted work to promote a Bush-administration marriage initiative.

Universal is putting together guidelines for its creators (including op-ed columnists) covering matters such as potential conflicts of interest. Lee Salem, Universal's executive vice president and editor, noted that this is little trickier for a syndicate than a newspaper. "Our creators are not employees," he said. "We contract with them for a service." But Salem emphasized that the guidelines are important nonetheless.

TMS has "explicit ethics provisions" in the contracts all its creators sign -- indeed, violating those provisions is what gave the syndicate grounds to drop Williams. The contract includes language about creators not receiving money from entities they write about. And TMS yesterday postal-mailed a letter to its opinion columnists reminding them that they should be careful about conflicts of interest.

"We're in a period of heightened scrutiny of columnists and other journalists," said John Twohey, TMS vice president of editorial and operations, who signed the letter.

United Media also relies on ethics language in its contracts, and the expectation that most creators realize how important it is to have a good reputation. "You can't put a price on credibility," said Marianne Goldstein, United's executive director, editorial. "Without it, you're just another talking head."

She said United expects columnists to "be open with us" about potential conflicts of interest -- including receiving speaking fees from groups the columnists might write about -- and added that the syndicate also expects its own editors to disclose possible conflicts if they take on outside work.

Goldstein said that in her nearly three years with United, there have been no known conflicts of interest involving United creators. Indeed, several syndicate executives said Williams and Gallagher are exceptions. "I think it's important not to lose sight of the fact that most columnists never engage in behavior that calls into question their independence and credibility," said Twohey.

King Features Managing Editor Glenn Mott said the syndicate, before signing columnists, does "extensive research on what their affiliations are" and asks for "full disclosure" from them. And he stays in close contact with columnists once they're signed. "You have to know a little extra about what's going on in their lives," he said. But, at the same time, Mott added, "You have to trust them."

Creators Syndicate President Rick Newcombe said it's hard for a syndicate to know about a conflict of interest a columnist might be hiding. "They're not employees," he noted, echoing Lee Salem's comment. "They're independent contractors. You have to deal with it when it comes out."

Newcombe does think the Gallagher and Williams revelations will make other opinion columnists more careful about getting involved in conflicts of interest. Or the revelations could encourage these columnists to disclose possible conflicts they might already have.

Excepts from Twohey's letter to TMS opinion columnists:

"Recent news events have cast a national spotlight on the subject of media credibility. I?m referring, in particular, to disclosures that two syndicated columnists -- one associated with TMS -- accepted money from the federal government to promote White House initiatives. These developments underscore for those of us involved in the creation and distribution of editorial content to newspapers the importance of adhering to the highest ethical standards. ...

"As you know, the need to maintain rigorous journalistic standards is emphasized in the syndication contract TMS requires its columnists to sign. This letter is intended to serve as a reminder of the ethics-related provisions in that agreement.

"Credibility is one of TMS? most valuable assets, and we expect writers whose work we syndicate to avoid conflicts of interest or any activities that would damage their credibility and that of TMS. Those who enter into relationships or engage in activities that compromise their journalistic independence and integrity will jeopardize their relationships with TMS.

"We expect our columnists to avoid conflicts of interest AND the appearance of such conflicts. This means, for example, that a columnist should not accept compensation of any sort from an individual or organization that becomes the subject of a column. Nor should a columnist accept free entertainment or gifts of any substantial value from a source or a publicist. It means a columnist should not write about a business in which he or she has a financial stake, or in which the principals are relatives or close friends. It means a columnist should not write about an organization of which he or she is a member, or use as a source of information a relative, close friend or neighbor.

"In cases where a columnist believes an exception to one of these rules is warranted, the writer should consult with an editor at TMS. In general, if a columnist is engaged in any activity that creates a potential conflict, he or she must disclose that information to the syndicate. Failure to do so could be grounds for TMS to terminate its syndication contract with that individual. ...

"Of course, no set of rules can cover every ethics-related situation that may arise. We count on our columnists to exercise common sense and their own good judgment in making decisions and in taking steps to protect their credibility. We all know that once a columnist?s credibility is lost, it?s impossible to replace."


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