Pundit Payola: Williams, Gallagher Were Wrong, But What's Right?

By: Joe Strupp Now that two syndicated columnists have admitted taking government money for promoting certain points of view, is the growing scrutiny of all commentators long overdue? Or is the new scrutiny just a kind of witch hunt? In the wake of Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher's ethics problems, E&P asked a dozen columnists if they have any ghosts in their pasts and what ethics rules they believe should be set for columnists.

In all cases, the columnists flatly opposed any government payoff for promotion, said they had never engaged in such actions, and had rarely been offered payment. Kathleen Parker was typical. "It's called conflict of interest," she said. "It's very simple. If someone's paying you and you're going to write about a subject related to that person or entity, than you have to disclose it. Period. End of story."

But while none of the columnists we contact said they'd accepted money from the government, many acknowledged they'd been paid to talk to trade groups, issue-oriented organizations, and at universities, and they defended that practice. "You get this gray area because columnists do a lot of buckraking," said Jack Germond, the retired columnist for The Sun of Baltimore.

The amounts of money paid for these speeches can be staggering and should spark questions of how influential outside fees can be on columnists, Ruben Navarette Jr. pointed out. "When you pull them up on lecture agency Web sites and see ultimately how much these people go for when they give speeches, that raises a whole different set of concerns -- these are people who can make anywhere from $250,000 to $700,000 or $800,000 a year in extra income from speeches," he said. "If we're going to talk about Armstrong Williams, it just seems intellectually dishonest to me not to have the other conversation as well."

But columnists, in the main, defended the practice. Mona Charen declared that she gladly takes speaking fees from local Republican groups and pro-life organizations because her support of their causes in her columns is well-known. "I do it because my mind is made up and was before I spoke to these groups," she told E&P. "There is no group I could think of that could influence me with money."

Cal Thomas defended his paid appearances before groups like the Pregnancy Center for Women in Crisis, because he already supports their anti-abortion approach. "I don't write about the specific places for which I speak," he adds.

Pat Buchanan offered a similar defense. "I don't know when I have written about a group to whom I've spoken for a fee," he told E&P, adding that most of his paid appearances involved colleges and debate-style situations. "When you do write about a private group to whom you've spoken for a fee, you should include [that information] in your column."

Ellen Goodman said she will not speak for political organizations, but gladly takes fees to appear at colleges and for women's groups, claiming such payments do not influence her writing.

Tony Blankley, the columnist and editorial page editor at The Washington Times, said he had taken speaking fees from political groups, such as the Log Cabin Republicans. But, he does not consider it a conflict because the fee did not change what he writes in a column. "There is a difference between speaking to a group and being paid to express a certain opinion," Blankley said.

What are the rules?

When it comes to pay-for-play, especially regarding government funding, the rules are often clear and save columnists from temptation.

For Clarence Page, all speaking-fee arrangements require approval from his Chicago Tribune editor. "He determines what is acceptable," Page said. "If they have a problem, I either do not take the event, or do not take a fee, or give it to charity." Page cited an offer from an insurance group last year to speak at their gathering in San Francisco as one that did not get approval.

Cal Thomas said it's a standard provision in his syndicate contract that writers "are forbidden from receiving anything of monetary value in exchange for promoting a product or policy in your column." William Raspberry works under similar restraints. "The major news organizations mostly have rules to cover this sort of thing, and it really does save a lot of wear and tear on your ethics meter," he said.

While none of those interviewed admitted to knowing about other instances of columnists accepting government payoffs, most worried that more might be coming. "There is a question about how widespread this is," said Page. "It will be good that we clean house." Adds Thomas, "I don't think this is the end of it."

But viewpoints differed about what constitutes a conflict and what the recent revelations involving Gallagher and Armstrong mean to the industry.

Germond said he has taken speaking fees from non-political business groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association or Smokeless Tobacco Council, but "would never let a politician buy me dinner. There is no excuse for that."

Thomas warned that anyone who tries to sway his view with money or promises of favor might find a boomerang effect. He recalled the time during George H.W. Bush's administration that a Bush aide said Thomas might get better access to the senior Bush if he wrote something positive. "I told him never to say that to me again and just to show him I don't play that game, I found something negative to write," Thomas said.

Arianna Huffington said she draws the line at specific industries about which she has written and continues to pursue, such as drug companies or tobacco and alcohol manufacturers. "I would not take money from political organizations either, but will speak to colleges and grassroots organizations, often pro bono," she explained.

Gray Area Remains

But does taking money from any outside group create potential problems down the road if that group makes news the columnist must cover?

"I have never had a problem with it," Goodman said. But Charen admitted that a sticky situation could develop if not watched carefully. "Suppose you never expressed a view on NAFTA, and you gave a speech to a group of exporters and then you decided to come out in favor of NAFTA," Charen explained. "Some people could say, 'A-ha!'"

Raspberry believes the decision is basically common sense, knowing what might be a conflict is often clear and the need to keep credibility is most important. "I think maybe we ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard," he told E&P. "And not because we are better people, but because a lot rides on the notion that we ask a public to depend on us for information."

Some believe that disclosure of conflicts in a column helps but does not mean that the writer may not be tainted in their viewpoint. "At least it is not deception," Blankley said about those who disclose conflicts. "But it strikes me that people read a columnist for what they assume is their genuine position."

For Parker, "the answer to the question of when to disclose is: always. You just always do. I think everybody needs to step up to the plate and say what they're doing. And I think the public deserves to know. How can you trust someone who's offering an opinion on a subject that they're also making money on?"

Ruben Navarrette said there is no halfway on the issue of disclosure. "Whenever you're writing about a subject, an institution, or a political party that you've benefited from, particularly monetary compensation, you have to disclose that in your column," he stated.

He pointed to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman disclosing in his column that he had served as a consultant to Enron before the scandal involving the energy company broke. But Navarrette doesn't say Krugman did wrong in associating with Enron: "He was an economist. He flew in and gave a speech. Ultimately when he comments on that down the line, am I suppose to believe that Krugman doesn't have an original thought? That's not logical."

One thing nearly all of the columnists seemed to agree on: Much of the current ethics mess arises from the fact that so many columnists today were never trained as journalist.

Parker, who started as a reporter 25 years ago, said that newsroom experience can make the difference in learning that "you just don't."

Navarrette, pointing out that he still works for a newspaper, The San Diego Union-Tribune, commented: "We, in our profession, have deliberately confused the hell out of people. I don't think most people understand that Armstrong Williams and I aren't really in the same business."


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here