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.
This isn’t to say that Telhami, or any of these writers, don’t firmly believe in the opinions they expressed. It’s likely that the vast majority, if not all, do. But even if we put aside the question of whether or not these writers belong on op-ed pages in the first place — after all, an op-ed defending a company that funds your organization might more accurately be called a press release — there’s no question that readers have a right to know the allegiances of the writers pushing their opinions.
And even though op-ed editors themselves know that many writers have an incentive not to disclose their connections, there isn’t a lot they can do to fight back. “At a certain level of penetration, it becomes impossible to catch up with all the threads,” says John Timpane, commentary page editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Complexity of interrelation is so deep that no editor will be able to present it to the reader. It would take a paragraph.”
Think tanks are aware of this fact, and they exploit it. Though some disclose their funding sources — the Brookings Institution, for example, offers a list of contributors in its annual report — others, like the American Enterprise Institute, do not. (When I asked AEI public affairs officer Veronique Rodman why they don’t disclose this information, she said didn’t know and would get back to me, which she has not done.)
Space considerations, of course, also mean that readers don’t get adequate information about even relatively transparent organizations like Brookings. Usually, a think tank-affiliated commentator is usually simply said to be from the “conservative Heritage Foundation” or “left-leaning Brookings Institution,” even when an opinion directly supports the position of an industry or entity that funds the writer’s think tank. (Many op-ed editors feel that think tanks like Brookings, AEI and Heritage are well-known and well-respected enough that more detailed disclosures, already somewhat impractical, are unnecessary.)
It is true that sometimes an expert from AEI might well be the most qualified person to comment on, say, tobacco legislation. But that doesn’t mean the reader shouldn’t know whether or not AEI gets a grant from Philip Morris.
In truth, in the world of op-eds, almost everyone has a vested interest — either ideological or financial — in their chosen topic. Transparency is essential, but efforts to resist it continue unabated. Often a writer will submit a piece as a freelancer, even though he or she has a tie to a particular industry or organization. Only with diligent research — and a fair amount of luck — can an editor uncover the writer’s connections. Some writers, even those from reputable think tanks, also consciously cook the books to help their case. Timpane recalls a submission from a writer arguing that there exists scientific evidence that abortion leads to higher rates of breast cancer. He would have run it, but he realized that the “science” on which this evidence was based was dubious, since the experiment lacked a control group. He confronted the writer, who admitted the science was weak, and on this basis Timpane concluded that this writer was an advocate for Christian conservatives who were more interested in pushing an ideology than in the scientific truth of the matter. Timpane barred the writer from his pages.
But many editors lack the knowledge, expertise, and time necessary to weed out those trying to deceive them, and most of the op-ed editors contacted for this piece admitted — off the record — that they have been fooled more than once. And that’s only the ones they’re aware of. When an interesting piece comes over the transom, the editor’s best defense is to research the writer and his organization on the Internet, try to unearth the individual or organization’s backers, ask the writer questions about his or her affiliations, and perhaps call a few other op-ed editors to see if they know anything about the writer. It’s a worthwhile effort, but with increasingly sophisticated business interests and partisans trying to influence the discourse any way they can, it’s often not enough. The press is in a battle with increasingly aggressive ideologues for control of what constitutes objective opinion, and, ultimately, the ideologues have the upper hand.
“There’s no way to know about an Armstrong Williams,” says Richard Gross, op-ed editor of the Baltimore Sun. “You would expect someone who is acting as a journalist to be very up-front and not be being paid by somebody. He’s certainly never going to get an op-ed in the Sun … I’m worried that there are other people, but I don’t know who they are. You just have to get to know the people who you deal with, and learn to trust them. The Williams thing was a shocker — we’re all exposed. You want to put out an honest product, and it makes you wary of everybody.” Even university professors, he says, will submit pieces advocating a particular position without informing an op-ed editor that they are being paid to do so by vested interests.
One of the positive outcomes of the payola revelations is that op-ed editors will likely be more vigilant in their reviews of authors and will, in the short term at least, be more likely to question the sometimes too-comfortable relationship between themselves and the advocacy organizations and writers they count on to fill their pages.
Still, the op-ed game has changed significantly since the New York Times invented the form in 1970 — and these days editors often find themselves in an adversarial relationship with the very writers whose opinions they solicit. “Journalism is a constant struggle against the official story,” says Timpane. “It’s not that we hate the right or hate the left. But we know that a lot of the stuff we’re getting is packaged [and] it may or may not be the truth. It’s a tug-of-war.”
Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.
And too often lately, we have no idea who’s doing the tugging.