The increasing revelations about payola journalism have brought a dark cloud over the entire world of reporters, writers, editors, columnists, and the newspapers and media outlets they work for. Now we have two more "columnists" admitting they have taken frequent payments from indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff to write columns favorable to his clients and financial bedmates.
As reported by Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post, "Copley News Service last week dropped Doug Bandow -- who also resigned as a Cato Institute scholar -- after he acknowledged taking as much as $2,000 a pop from Abramoff for up to two dozen columns favorable to the lobbyist's clients." Bandow was apologetic and remorseful.
According to Kurtz, "Peter Ferrara of the Institute for Policy Innovation has acknowledged taking payments years ago from a half-dozen lobbyists, including Abramoff. Two of his papers, the Washington Times and Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader, have now dropped him." He is unapologetic, however, saying "There is nothing unethical about taking money from someone and writing an article."
The fact that Ferrara sees nothing unethical, wrong, misleading, or otherwise inappropriate for being a paid hack for a special interest party and then not revealing that fact as he continues to write a newspaper column that is not labeled "Advertisement" is one of the fundamental things gone wrong with present day journalism.
Take these two new instances of payola journalism, and combine them with the following:
government payoffs to radio personality Armstrong Willams (the probe is widening);
government sponsored stories supplied to the Iraqi media by the Lincoln Group, hired by the Pentagon;
Agricultural Department payments to freelance writer Dave Smith in return for favorable stories;
upwards of 50 journalists or writers paid by the Pentagon to write favorably about the Balkans War;
Department of Health and Human Services paid propaganda television "news" segments on CNN(unrevealed to the viewing public) about the new Medicare law;
at least 300 news shows used portions of seven prepackaged reports written by a former journalist, Mike Morris, hired by the Office of National Drug Control Policy and sent out to 770 affiliates, identified not as government PR but as news;
a veteran local news reporter in Florida, who covers the Jeb Bush government as part of his beat, was simultaneously taking tens of thousands of dollars through his own private company from various Jeb Bush government agencies for public relations work and film editing services;
What other instances of payola journalism don't we know about? How pervasive is this practice becoming? Is there any wonder that newspapers, journalists and news organizations poll so low among Americans?
One of the potential answers identified by Editor & Publisher is the fact that there seems to be less risk of payola journalism among real journalists, trained as journalists, practicing as journalists, or having studied journalism in college. Here's what E&P says:
The Washington Post Writers Group has a message for newspaper editors in this year of pundit payola: Maybe the syndicated columnists you buy should have journalistic backgrounds. In a note on PostWritersGroup.com, WPWG executives Alan Shearer and James Hill said their syndicate's columnists "are all journalists, and seven of them have won the Pulitzer Prize. Their journalistic integrity is your best protection of your journalistic integrity."Journalists "understand better where the boundaries are," added Shearer, when reached Thursday by E&P. "Editors should be very, very skeptical of columnists who didn't grow up in a journalistic culture. Take these columnists if you want, but read their stuff very carefully."
It is not a foolproof test, but I think it is a good start. Not all the miscreants are non-journalists, but most of them have, in fact, had no professional journalism experience. I would also guess that most of them are not members of the Newspaper Guild or the National Writers Union, another way we might be able to guage the integrity level of journalists and columnists.
Of course, in the end, anyone can call himself a journalist and anyone can call herself a newspaper columnist. With those labels comes an inherent supposition that the writer is not being paid by a private corporate entity or a governmental agency to write what they are told. The reading public has a right to know the difference. Newspapers and broadcast media have an obligation to distinguish between paid propaganda and bona fide reporting and commentary.
Postscript -- I did not feel the need to comment on the first part of Howard Kurtz's story at the beginning of this piece because the practice of President's strong-arming editors is not a new story. Democratic and Republican presidents have done it since the beginning of our democracy, some more flagrantly than others, and some more successfully than others. Bush is just another in a long line of those presidents who have done it clumsily, without finesse, and obviously panicked about self-image.
(N.B. I am writing from Marin County in California, on a visit to our eldest daughter for the holidays, also celebrating the birth of our newest addition, Kendall Ann, now 13 days old. I will continue to write, but perhaps not daily. Thanks, as always, for stopping by Orwell's Grave.)