Daily Archives: February 6, 2006

This quill for hire

The cash-for-op-eds scandal draws a couple of disappointing, excuse-making, wagons-circling, reader’s-intelligence-insulting responses from the conservative side: in Human Events by Lisa Di Pasquale, and in The American Spectator by Iain Murray.

Before my response, a recusal. A big part of this controversy has to do with the journalist Michael Fumento, who lost his Scripps-Howard column after the revelation that his 2003 book, BioEvolution, was subsidized with an undisclosed 1999 grant of $60,000 to his employer, the Hudson Institute, from the agribusiness giant Monsanto — which Fumento repeatedly praised, in the book and in several columns. Unlike Doug Bandow, Fumento has not been been actually paid off for op-ed columns, as one writer has wrongly stated; and, also unlike Bandow, he has vociferously defended himself against charges of being on the take. I will not discuss this aspect of the story, for the simple reason that I have known Mike Fumento for many years. I am very sorry about his current predicament, which comes on the heels of some major health problems, and I wish him well. I recuse myself from any further comment. (If you want to find out more, check out the above links for the case against Fumento and for his defense, with plenty more links inside.)

The problem with Murray’s and DiPasquale’s articles is that they don’t so much defend any conservative writers against charges of shilling as offer unabashed defenses of shilling. Murray, whose article is titled, “What Are Op-Eds For?“, writes:

An opinion piece—whether an individual op-ed or a column—exists to promote a point of view by argument. It does not seek to establish a fact, but to win people over to a particular viewpoint or opinion. Therefore, the strength of the argument is the key factor in determining the effectiveness of the piece. A sloppily constructed, poorly thought-out argument will convince no one — while a tightly constructed, coherent, and well-written argument can sway minds. That is why opinion pieces are considered intellectual ammunition in the war of ideas.

The only valid response to a persuasive argument is an equally persuasive argument towards a different conclusion. Yet the witch hunters’ central argument has nothing to do with the virtues of the arguments presented by Bandow and others. Their argument is, essentially, that because the writer has not disclosed information about his income, he is essentially untrustworthy and his opinions should not be given the time of day. This argument is flawed enough to make it invalid. In logic, that’s called a fallacy.

The argument is fallacious for three reasons.

First, it has nothing to do with the views expressed in the articles. Instead, it dwells on characteristics of the author. In logic, this is called the ad hominem (or ad hom.) fallacy. It should have no effect on the evaluation of the views expressed in the article. So, if someone writes in favor of drug legalization but it is then revealed that he has been paid to write the article by George Soros or another proponent of drug legalization, his argument cannot be validly dismissed on that ground alone.

The argument that full disclosure of any financial interests would solve the problem should be seen in this light. The ad hominem argument cares nothing for transparency. If a writer does not disclose his income source, he is untrustworthy for not being transparent. If he does disclose his income source, he is a paid shill. Yet neither formulation speaks to the actual arguments.

Second, to unpack the fallacy further, another fallacious argument arises: that those who are untainted by private sector money are inherently more trustworthy. This is a form of the fallacy of appeal to authority—”Look at me, you can trust me!” A writer’s argument does not gain any more validity through the author’s lack of financial ties.

Finally, because of the general applicability of the charge, a third fallacy arises. By broadly asserting that anyone connected financially with private industry is inherently untrustworthy, the Left has engaged in the fallacy of poisoning the well: No writer who has ties to industry deserves to be listened to—their arguments need not even be heard, never mind addressed. The Left’s case for transparency relies on poisoning the well for its effectiveness: Once a writer has declared his or her ties, they believe, the reader will not give their arguments credence.

….

The self-important witch finders blazing with moral righteousness have only one goal in mind: to deny the public access to the ideas advanced by the writers they target. This is not about trust, or ethics, or any other moral consideration. It is about suppression of free speech and public debate. The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” It is neither illegal nor immoral to write about something while having financial ties to private industry. By inventing new social rules to forbid such an act, the leftist witch finders are showing once again just how hostile they are to the ideals on which the American republic stands. Opinion is opinion and should be treated as such. Any other approach to it is fallacious sophistry.



Let’s ponder this for a moment. It’s an “ad hominem” argument to say that a journalist is tainted by taking money from those about whom he writes favorably? Now that’s chutzpah.

As for the argument that an opinion column should be judged not on who has paid for it but on how convincingly it makes its case, its fallacy should be immediately obvious. An argument should be not only convincing but intellectually honest. We should be able, for instance, to count on a writer not to distort the facts (however convincingly she maybe do it) and not to withhold facts unfavorable to her case. Undisclosed financial interest in the slant of an article certainly compromises a writer’s intellectual honesty, and hence his credibility. To pretend otherwise is absurd.

The complaint about prejudice against private industry is another red herring, clearly intended to make the conservative knee jerk. In fact, Armstrong Williams, the first of the current batch of columnists implicated in payola scandals, had taken money from the Bush Administration. And does anyone really think that, say, Anna Quindlen would keep her job if it was revealed that she was taking money from abortion-rights groups to write pro-choice columns?

Meanwhile, DiPasquale weighs in with this:


For years liberal writers have had their books subsidized by corporations such as HarperCollins, Putnam and the like. Feminist Naomi Wolf, for instance, lived on the publishing house dole despite mediocre sales. Conservative writers, on the other hand, had to go to think tanks and Regnery (a HUMAN EVENTS sister company) to have their books published.


In Slander, HUMAN EVENTS Legal Correspondent Ann Coulter writes, “Imitating an Alzheimer’s joke, every successive conservative best-seller genuinely is a ‘surprise best-seller’ to publishers. By contrast, it’s hard to think of a single liberal book whose commercial appeal eluded publishing houses — even those that went on to spectacular failure. Gigantic book advances go to all sorts of authors — liberal historians, liberal feminists, liberal celebrities, liberal Clinton aides, liberal fighter pilots, liberal comedians. But you can be sure that enormous advances that turn out to be enormous mistakes will never be lavished on any of those ‘surprise best-sellers.’ Book advances are pure wealth transfers to liberal gabbers.”


Is being subsidized by Monsanto more corrupt than being subsidized by HarperCollins?


The only thing this pathetic self-pitying argument can do is compromise conservative writers by pegging them as likely shills. It should be noted that Murray, likewise, frames his argument in unabashedly right-vs-left terms:

FOR MANY YEARS NOW, opinion pieces have been the main vehicle by which conservatives have taken their philosophy to the American people. It was the Austrian economist and enemy of socialism F. A. Hayek who first spelled out to conservatives that they were engaged in a war of ideas. Since the rise of Reaganism, conservatives have been winning this war and the opinion pages of newspapers are one of the chief battlegrounds.

It is therefore in the Left’s interest to deny this ground to their enemy. A campaign waged against private financial ties serves not only this purpose but has proved beneficial in other ways. The acquiescence of editors and news services has enabled a sustained witch hunt. The war of ideas, unwinnable for the Left, has been replaced by a war on writers based on prejudice.

Of course, if Murray’s argument were to be taken at face value, it would logically follow that it is in the Right’s interest to undermine the most basic principles of journalistic ethics.

Part of the reason such arguments are even possible, of course, is that journalistic ethics are already in a pretty sorry state. Intellectual honesty and fairness are not highly prized virtues in opinion writing these days, and there are quite a few pundits whose commentary, whether in writing or over the airwaves, could not be more egregiously biased if it was bought and paid for. Ideological zealotry is no less detrimental to intellectual honesty than financial interest. One is reminded of the famous verse by Humbert Wolfe, written in the 1920s:


You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
Thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
Un-bribed, there’s no occasion to.


But still, one must draw the line somewhere. By Murray’s and DiPasquale’s “logic,” there is no essential difference between opinion articles and the paid “advertorials” that lobbying groups, businesses, and political organizations sometimes place in newspapers and magazines. The day I believe that, I’ll be looking for another line of work.

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