One of the most striking developments to come out of the three payola flaps involving conservative pundits that have surfaced recently — the first involving Armstrong Williams, who took $240,000 from the Department of Education to promote the No Child Left Behind initiative, the second involving Maggie Gallagher, who agreed to a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to promote the Bush administration’s marriage initiative, and the third involving Mike McManus, who took $4,000 from HHS to “train marriage mentors,” and subsequently pushed Bush’s marriage initiative in his columns — has been just how surprised the participants seem to be at the uproar that has greeted the exposure of their actions. Williams, in the words of USA Today, which broke the story, said “he understands that critics could find the arrangement unethical,” but that he believed in the program he was being paid to promote, so he did it anyway. Gallagher, in a moment she surely now regrets, asked Howard Kurtz, who broke the story about her HHS connection in the Washington Post, to tell her whether or not she had violated journalistic ethics. And McManus said he didn’t think the fact that he was being paid as a consultant for an entity he was ostensibly independently commenting upon was “relevant” information.
Last Wednesday, Washington Monthly editor Paul Glastris wrote in a post on the magazine’s Web site that the reactions of Williams and Gallagher signal that “the ascendant class of conservative pundit-operatives looks upon old strictures of behavior with a kind of incomprehension, even contempt.” (The McManus case had not yet come to light.) Certainly, there does seem to be a feeling developing among some politicians and commentators on the take that the old, honor-based standards of journalism have grown quaint.
Partisans, of course, want to dominate the political discourse, and part of their wide-ranging strategy is to fool the public with ostensibly independent front men and women who are financially or ideologically motivated to play along. But the problem goes far beyond Williams, Gallagher and McManus. Much less recognized — but more widespread — has been the infiltration of the nation’s op-ed pages by agents too clever to attract the “payola” tag. James Glassman, who is affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute, founded an organization called Tech Central Station, and in doing so he “reinvented journalism — as lobbying,” as Nick Confessore put it. Last year, a Glass-penned op-ed appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch attacking the documentary “Super Size Me,” which details how a steady diet of fast food led to health problems for documentarian Morris Spurlock. Glassman failed to disclose in his piece that McDonald’s is one of the companies that pays for Tech Central Station. (The Post-Dispatch subsequently apologized to readers.) On Dec. 12, as we noted before, an op-ed by Tech Central Station editor Nick Schultz appeared in the Los Angeles Times arguing that “at some level, science probably will never resolve what to do about global warming.” Schultz failed to disclose that Tech Central Station is partially funded by ExxonMobil, which opposes legislation that would regulate gases that contribute to global warming.
Other examples, as detailed by Chris Mooney, include an op-ed in the Washington Post by James Schlesinger arguing that, as Mooney puts it, “we don’t know enough about the human role in climate change to embrace strong preventative policies (i.e., fossil fuel emissions reductions).” Readers of the op-ed had no way of knowing that Schlesinger sits on the board of Peabody Energy, a major coal company. The Boston Globe last year ran an op-ed by James M. Taylor, billed as “managing editor of Environment & Climate News,” in which Taylor attacked the science of the film “The Day After Tomorrow,” as well as mainstream climate science. What went unmentioned to readers is a major financial contributor to Environment & Climate News is a conservative think tank partially funded, like Tech Central Station, by ExxonMobil.
It’s not just business interests who have been less than forthcoming in op-eds. Political advisors are also getting in on the game. In October, Lawrence F. Kaplan detailed in The New Republic how some of John Kerry’s foreign policy advisors declined to identify themselves as such in print, even when they were writing about politics. In one instance, the Brookings Institution’s Shibley Telhami, who coordinated Kerry’s advisors on reform in the Middle East, wrote in a Baltimore Sun op-ed that based on Muslim resentment of Bush’ s Middle East policies, “it is difficult to imagine that al Qaeda would view the record of the past three years as having been anything but successful.” Telhami did not disclose his connection to Kerry in his piece.