Did anyone change their opinion?

Posted: Feb 15, 2005 12:00 AM

There seems to be an epidemic of conservative columnists being paid by the Bush Administration to publicize its initiatives?first Armstrong Williams, then Maggie Gallagher, now Michael McManus.  The facts of these cases are different, but all have been lumped together in media reports.  The implication is that conservative columnists are ?on the take.?  The goal is to simultaneously undermine the Bush Administration, its initiatives, and the small band of conservatives who appear in the mainstream media.

 I suppose I should start with myself.  Back in the early 1980s, I did some consulting work for the Agency for International Development to write a study of taxation in developing countries.  I worked on the White House staff in the late 1980s and at the Treasury Department during the administration of George H.W. Bush.  Since then, I have not gotten a government check for anything except the occasional tax refund.

 In short, since I began my column in 1995, I have done no consulting work for the government, either in terms of general public relations, as in the case of Williams, or for specific products, as was the case with Gallagher and McManus.  In the interest of full disclosure, however, I have had a couple of lunches in the White House Mess, courtesy of those with Mess privileges.

 Having said that, there is a larger question here.  Is there any reason to believe that Williams, Gallagher or McManus changed their positions in some way favorable to the administration as the result of whatever largess they received?  The answer, clearly, is no.  They supported the initiatives they were paid to work on long before receiving any sort of government contract.  And it is highly unlikely that they took these positions in the hopes of receiving such contracts, since in each case their positions long predate the election of Mr. Bush.

 If one could show some evidence of a change in opinion or emphasis before and after receipt of the contract, perhaps there would be a case for dismissal from the community of columnists.  But there is no evidence of that.  It is clear that in each case, the contract was given precisely because the columnist was already a supporter of Mr. Bush?s policies.

 The real question here is not why a columnist would take money to support what he or she already supported, but why the administration would take the risk of burning one of its very few journalistic supporters?  Frankly, the people that should be fired are not the columnists, but those who gave them the contracts.  It was extraordinarily bad judgment that was certain to become public at some point, thereby embarrassing not only the contract recipients, but the president himself.

 This being said, there is a heavy element of double standards at work here.  The Clinton Administration actually put ?journalists? like Sid Blumenthal and David Gergen on the White House payroll mainly for the purpose of defending everything it did among their former colleagues.  No one said this was unethical, even though Blumenthal virtually campaigned for a White House job by writing fawning praises of Bill Clinton disguised as news reports for his previous employers.

 But mainstream journalists who routinely speak before corporations, trade associations and interest groups hoping to influence news coverage practice the greatest double standard.  Virtually every major television anchor is listed with one or more speakers? bureaus, which charge tens of thousands of dollars for one of them to appear.  But of course, this also gives business executives plenty of opportunity to explain why their industry or their products are really good for the American people.

In other cases, journalists work for the very businesses they report on.  Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post?s media reporter, has a show on CNN.  Critics like Slate?s Mickey Kaus have charged that this consistently causes him to underplay negative news relating to CNN.

Yet journalists are still quick to assume that every politician who takes a $1,000 campaign contribution from a lobbyist has been bought, while self-righteously proclaiming that $100,000 speaking fees cannot buy them.  At least the officials have to disclose it, while no one knows how much the journalists make or whom they have been bought by?sorry, I mean who they were paid to speak to.  If what the journalists are doing is in fact justifiable, why don?t they give government officials the same consideration?  The answer is pure hypocrisy, nothing more.

This is not meant as a defense of conservative columnists who have gotten government contracts.  They should have enough sense to know that there is a double standard and to avoid the appearance of impropriety.  But mainstream journalists, in effect selling themselves to the biggest corporate bidder, are a much greater scandal that will continue to be ignored because so many are on the take.