Syndicate: Less Payola Risk if Columnists Have Journalism Background

By: Dave Astor The Washington Post Writers Group has a message for newspaper editors in this year of pundit payola: Maybe the syndicated columnists you buy should have journalistic backgrounds.

In a note on, WPWG executives Alan Shearer and James Hill said their syndicate's columnists "are all journalists, and seven of them have won the Pulitzer Prize. Their journalistic integrity is your best protection of your journalistic integrity."

Journalists "understand better where the boundaries are," added Shearer, when reached Thursday by E&P. "Editors should be very, very skeptical of columnists who didn't grow up in a journalistic culture. Take these columnists if you want, but read their stuff very carefully."

Four syndicated conservative columnists were found, in a series of 2005 revelations, to have accepted money to promote programs and initiatives without disclosing the funding. Doug Bandow, Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher, and Michael McManus had little or no background as newspaper staffers before launching their columns -- although McManus was a magazine journalist earlier in his career.

The Web-site statement by Shearer (WPWG's editorial director/general manager) and Hill (the syndicate's managing editor) was titled "Protecting the Integrity of Your Editorial Pages." It began: "Once again our journalistic world has been rocked by the disclosure that writers accepted money from undisclosed interests in exchange for publishing columns. This time, columnists Doug Bandow and Peter Ferrara were paid by a Washington lobbyist to produce articles favorable to that lobbyist's clients. These disclosures follow reports in early 2005 that syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams had accepted government funds to promote the administration's No Child Left Behind Act."

The statement continued: "Do cases such as these represent a crisis in journalism? We think not. But they should spur editors to ask if they are doing everything possible to protect the integrity of their editorial and opinion pages. And that, quite frankly, is a tougher question to answer. Newspapers have codes of ethics that cover their writers. But do the writers you publish to fill your Op-Ed pages also follow similar codes? Can you be assured that a syndicated columnist is not pursuing an agenda, essentially at the expense of your newspaper's credibility?"

Then Shearer and Hill noted that WPWG's opinion columnists have journalistic backgrounds. And they concluded with these words for newspaper editors: "More than anything, we want to protect our brand -- and yours."


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