They’re Coming Out of the Woodwork

Two columnists turn out to have been cashing checks from scandal-plagued lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Who's next?

It’s beginning to get tiring, watching the outing of a steady parade of journalists who turn out to be on the take from government agencies or special interest groups.

As we noted on Monday, the federal government seemed to have a monopoly on paying people (we hesitate to call Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher journalists, they’re more like one-trick ponies with deadlines) to shill for it. But we were wrong. The feds aren’t the only ones in search of journalists on the take, and they aren’t the only ones finding them, either. As the expanding and increasingly smarmy Jack Abramoff scandal investigation makes clear, lobbyists are just as hungry as federal agencies to plant messages with anyone who has a platform.

According to BusinessWeek, one Doug Bandow, a Cato Institute fellow and syndicated columnist for Copley News Service, was , pulling in “$2,000 per column to address specific topics of interest to Abramoff’s clients. Bandow’s standing as a columnist and think-tank analyst provided a seemingly independent validation of the arguments the Abramoff team were using to try to sway Congressional action.”

BW took a look at some of Bandow’s columns, finding that he regularly “wrote favorably about Abramoff’s Indian tribal clients,” and, as has become standard operating procedure for this kind of thing, he never disclosed that he was on Abramoff’s payroll.

Bandow isn’t the only one outed by Business Week. Peter Ferrara, a senior policy adviser at the conservative Institute for Policy Innovation, also cashed Abramoff’s checks for writing op-ed pieces praising the lobbyist’s clients. While Bandow is singing the unconvincing chorus to “I made a mistake,” Ferrara, like a true unscrupulous hack, is unapologetic. He told the magazine that “I do that all the time … I’ve done that in the past, and I’ll do it in the future.”

Meantime, The New Republic’s blog, “The Plank,” points us to an illuminating article from May, in which Franklin Foer anticipates much of the BW story. He even fingers Bandow and Ferrara as beneficiaries of Abramoff’s ample slush fund used to buy positive coverage.

Foer writes that Abramoff would regularly take conservative journalists along on trips funded by his clients, including one in 1997 during which “Abramoff’s firm shepherded a contingent of Washington journalists and thinkers around Moscow — an itinerary of meetings and meals designed to please the trip’s funder, a Russian energy concern called NaftaSib. This journey included Tod Lindberg, then-editor of the Washington Times editorial page; Insight magazine’s James Lucier; and Erica Tuttle, The National Interest’s assistant managing editor at the time.”

In all, writes Foer, “more than 100 Hill staffers, journalists, and think-tank denizens attended such trips — from the editorial writers of the Washington Times, to the managing editor of The Public Interest, to … the Cato Institute’s Doug Bandow.”

After digesting the Business Week and New Republic stories, it’s going to be increasingly hard to read the work of conservative commentators without wondering if they’re writing from conviction, or because they’ve been bought to regurgitate the propaganda of the sponsor du jour.

To be fair, Cato is a libertarian think tank, so it’s entirely possible that Bandow, by selling his services in the private sector, really wasn’t doing anything that in any way would have compromised his core beliefs. Since he wasn’t being bought off by taxpayer money (just by a slick lobbyist with a seemingly endless payroll who seems primed to take a good chunk of the Washington-based conservative intelligensia down with him) he was merely testing his value on the open market.

What’s disconcerting is that we have a hunch that there are more Bandows and more Ferraras out there, and that this particular little bit of sordidness isn’t over. And we won’t be surprised at all if events reveal that the Business Week and New Republic pieces were just the tip of a very dirty iceberg.

And that’s a sad acknowledgement to make.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.