Punditry for Politics and Profit


In a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece, Doug Bandow explains (but does not justify) his decision to write columns supporting the interests of Jack Abramoff's clients at the lobbyist's behest. Bottom line: He did it for the money. Struggling to pay his bills with various inadequate sources of income–including his Cato gig, his syndicated column, political consulting, and speechwriting–he found it hard to resist Abramoff's relatively generous offer of $1,000 or so per column, especially since he never had to write anything that was contrary to his own views (a claim I have not seen anyone contradict). To his credit, Bandow says his punishment, which included losing his Cato job and his column, was "well-deserved." But one possible lesson to draw from his account is that Cato ought to pay its fellows better if it expects them to remain unencumbered by embarrassing financial arrangements like this one (although Cato's official objection was not so much that Bandow took Abramoff's money but that he failed to disclose the fact).

I like Doug and have no desire to kick him while he's down, so let me instead take up his suggestion that we use this episode as an opportunity to discuss the ethics of punditry for pay. I agree that it's dishonest for a paid advocate who is willing to say whatever his client requires to present the resulting work for hire as his own independent assessment. I also agree that failing to disclose an advance arrangement for article-specific payments from an interested party, even when the views you express are sincere and consistent with your principles, is certainly unwise and possibly unethical, especially if you conceal the information from the people publishing your work. But as Doug suggests, once you get beyond cases like those, there is a lot of gray, with decisions based on the desire to avoid not actual conflicts of interest so much as the "appearance" of such conflicts–which is to say, anything that might look bad.

As you may have guessed by now, I speak from experience. From time to time I am accused of being a flack for Big Tobacco because more than a decade ago I accepted a reprint fee from R.J. Reynolds for an op-ed piece about secondhand smoke I had written for The Wall Street Journal. The company used the article in an ad campaign and, since I had retained the reprint rights, paid me $5,000 for the privilege (a pretty fat reprint fee, I admit, but not very much compared to what RJR was planning to spend on the ads). Although I recognized that the transaction might be used against me, I did not see anything unethical about it, since RJR did not commission the article. What I did not realize (but should have) was how little such distinctions matter to people who are determined to discredit your views by implying that you arrived at them for financial reasons.

That article reprint was the only time I've ever had financial dealings with a tobacco company (a topic that came up on another Hit & Run thread recently), and since then I've tried to avoid anything that could be construed as an indication of "ties" to the industry. I've turned down junkets in Geneva and Cancun, requests for (unpaid) legislative testimony, and invitations to write op-ed pieces. But I can't help the fact that Philip Morris/Altria has donated money to the Reason Foundation, which publishes Reason (in addition to running a think tank). Last time I checked, the contributions (none of them tobacco-related) amounted to less than 1 percent of the foundation's budget. So although I may not be pure enough to satisy the average anti-smoking activist, I am at least able to alleviate the concerns of radio and TV producers who raise the issue (typically at the prompting of an anti-smoking activist).

The thing is, avoiding the taint of tobacco is purely a practical concern for me. I do not see any ethical problem with, say, writing an essay for an industry-supported Web site (another offer I recently declined). I do not worry that if I went to Cancun on a tobacco company's dime I would suddenly find myself abandoning my principles to support the Master Settlement Agreement or (in Philip Morris' case) FDA regulation of tobacco products. I just know that such interactions with the industry are, in terms of public perception, more trouble than they're worth. Although it's a basic logical error to think you can discredit someone's argument by impugning his motives, I'd rather not have to explain this particular rhetorical fallacy every time I open my mouth.

Still, if the worry is that opinion journalists and think tank wonks shave the truth to fit predetermined conclusions, the focus on money seems misplaced. While it's reasonable to expect disclosure of an ongoing financial arrangement or of payments like those Doug Bandow accepted, ideology and partisan loyalties are far more likely to color a pundit's presentation of the evidence than financial considerations. If a writer is intellectually dishonest, it ultimately does not matter whether his motive is politics or money. A financial disclosure in the author ID may remind people to be skeptical of what they read on op-ed pages, but that's good advice in any case.