The price of integrity

As a research associate at the Cato Institute, I’ve met Doug Bandow a few times, and it was truly a shock to me to learn that he was taking money from lobbyist extraordinaire Jack Abramoff for writing articles favorable to Abramoff’s clients such as Native American-run casinos. (A second think tanker, Peter Ferrara, is implicated as well.) Franklin Foer also write, here, that Bandow flatly denied a financial relationship with Abramoff when Foer asked him about it for an article earlier this year. I’m not sure I can really understand what makes people do such things. Ethics aside, what about the strong possibility of exposure and disgrace? Bandow has now lost both his position at Cato and his syndicated column; all this for a maximum of $48,000 spread out over 10 years. If I decided to sell my integrity, I would hope that even $48,000 a year wouldn’t do the trick.

I suppose the self-justification mechanism goes something like, “I’m not writing anything I don’t believe in.” But even if that were an excuse — how do you really know, in your own mind, that you’d be writing the same thing even without payments?

It’s particularly irksome that some are making excuses for this behavior:

Neither Ferrara, nor Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, expressed any ethical qualms about the pay-for-play. Giovanetti said critics are applying a “naive purity standard” to the op-ed business, adding, “I have a sense that there are a lot of people at think tanks who have similar arrangements.”

“Naive purity standard”? There’s an interesting term.

Meanwhile, kudos to Cal Thomas; he and I differ on a lot of issues (Thomas is a social and religious conservative), but over the years he has shown himself to be a man of genuine principle, and this is no exception:

“My view has always been that there are too few journalists left in journalism, and too many columnists with actual or potential conflicts of interest writing for mainstream newspapers,” said columnist Cal Thomas, who’s syndicated to nearly 600 papers via Tribune Media Services (TMS).

The conservative commentator told E&P Online that what Bandow did was “a big no-no” that “damages the credibility of everybody” who writes columns.

“I’m getting tired of this,” Thomas added, alluding to other 2005 revelations about columnists on the take. One of them was Armstrong Williams, whose contract was terminated by TMS this past January — hours after it became known he had received federal money.

Without in any way excusing the sellouts, here’s an interesting question to ponder. Does taking money taint opinion journalism more than blind partisan or ideological zeal, on either side of the fence?

18 Comments

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18 responses to “The price of integrity

  1. peter hoh

    Yes, taking money taints more than ideology. We readers can usually sense a columnist’s ideological slant, and it’s up to us to take that into consideration when we evaluate a column. No matter how carefully we read, we can’t detect the financial “incentives” that may affect a columnist.

  2. Pooh

    I was going to agree with what Peter said, but then I compared “Op-Ed for pay” with my fledgling attorney status. In theory, I’m a dispassionate advocate, zealously making all (reasonable…a big, BIG tent in legal circles) arguments in favor of my client’s position.

    I suppose the key difference is that everyone knows that I’m a paid…representative. However, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with hiring someone who can put forth your position with more eloquence than you could manage yourself.

  3. jw

    I have no problem with paid advocates, spin doctors and such. I have a big problem with paid advocates trying to fool the public into thinking they are impartial journalists.

    Journalist and advocate are both important jobs. They are also very different jobs from my, the reader’s, perspective.

  4. Paul

    The power of the greenback dollar is amazing. It can and does seduce ethical people. Tje “do re mi” has a seductive appeal.

  5. Anonymous

    I have no problem at all with “Op-ed for pay” as long as the writers discloses the pay. pooh’s example of attorney representation is valid: an attorney zealous advocates a particular point of view, and everyone knows exactly why. It should be the same with opinion writers.

    Readers should know which journalists are advocating a POV because they’re getting paid, and which ones are advocating just because they want to. Journalistic integrity requires this.

  6. Ampersand

    I think Peter is exactly right.

    Regarding $48,000, I agree with you that the gain doesn’t seem worth the risk. However, since we know for a fact that Mr. Bandow is willing to take money and not disclose it, we can’t be certain that the $48,000 we know about is all there is to know about.

    But it’s also possible that a lot of people just don’t think rationally about money.

  7. Pooh

    But it’s also possible that a lot of people just don’t think rationally about money.

    I have a candidate for understatement of the day…When you get into it, Barry, the sheer breadth of the ways in which people are irrational when it comes to money is staggering.

  8. Revenant

    I have a big problem with paid advocates trying to fool the public into thinking they are impartial journalists.

    Eh, there are no impartial journalists. The problem with paid op-eds is that the influence is hidden from the public, not that the influence is there. So, yeah, cash payments are somewhat worse than ideological bias, since it is usually possible to detect at least some of that bias.

    But it seems to me that it isn’t necessarily fair to say that Bandow “sold his integrity”. Did he actually write anything that was contrary to his own beliefs?

  9. Michael M.

    revenant: But it seems to me that it isn’t necessarily fair to say that Bandow “sold his integrity”. Did he actually write anything that was contrary to his own beliefs?

    It seems to me you’re asking the wrong question with regard to the integrity issue. It’s not whether he wrote something contrary to his own beliefs, but whether he wrote something solicited that he wanted to seem unsolicited.

    What matters in issues like these is readers’ expectations. We want to know whether we are reading 1) a paid-for press release, 2) a piece by a partisan ideologue, 3) a piece by a commentator in the employ of an interested party, 4) a piece by an uninvolved party. None of these is necessarily better than any of the others — as some comments point out, hiring someone to make your point more eloquently or persuasively is perfectly valid and legitimate, and ideologues can make persuasive advocates. But trying to pretend you’re an uninvolved party when you’re actually penning paid-for advocacy, even if it’s advocacy you believe in — that’s where he sells out his integrity.

  10. bk

    I want disclosure, and then I’m all set. People deserve to know whether someone’s views may have been “incentivized.”

  11. Revenant

    It’s not whether he wrote something contrary to his own beliefs, but whether he wrote something solicited that he wanted to seem unsolicited.

    Hm, if pretending to be impartial when you’re not is a violation of personal integrity, all the journalists in America with personal integrity could probably fit into my kitchen. 🙂

    The duty of a journalist is to write what he or she believes to be true. If Bandow did that, I don’t think his conscience has anything to answer for. Taking money lowers Bandow’s value as a journalist because it raises the possibility that his opinions have been bought and his articles are less than honest. But if they were, in fact, honest, then Bandow is personally guilty only of foolishness, and to a lesser extent of doing harm to his employer’s reputation.

  12. Pooh

    rev, you are confusing ‘disinterested’ (by which I mean absence of direct, financial interest) with ‘impartial’. (Oops, I now see the smiley that indicates you were joking. You got me…)

    FWIW, Bandow has pretty much fallen on his own sword for this one:

    As you know, my biases are both long-settled and common knowledge. However, that obviously doesn’t matter. Although the details have been exaggerated, that isn’t important. I wrote my own stories and believed what I wrote. But this work created an obvious appearance of conflict. I am fully responsible and I won’t play victim. Obviously, I regret stupidly calling into question my record of activism and writing that extends over 20 years. But more inexcusable is embarrassing friends and colleagues, such as yourselves, with whom I have worked. For that I deeply apologize. The responsibility is mine alone.

    (emphasis mine). I tend to agree with your second ‘graf, which only highlights to badness of the secrecy of the arrangement.

  13. Revenant

    rev, you are confusing ‘disinterested’ (by which I mean absence of direct, financial interest) with ‘impartial’.

    Well, the two words are synonyms. But even using your definition, I don’t think there are many “disinterested” reporters either. There are strong financial incentives to, for example, pander to the readership, be provocative, and inflate the importance of the story. That’s why you get N-part series and prime-time scare shows about unfounded nonsense like the breast implant scare or the McMartin preschool case — because, in the end, most journalists collect a paycheck first and worry about the truth second, if at all.

  14. Rainsborough

    In politics, agenda setting is at least as important as decision making. So also is it important in journalism what one chooses to write about, and in one’s small way, to nudge onto the political agenda.
    Absent a monetary inducement, would Bandow have chosen to write about the entrepreneurial spirit loose among the Choctaw or the wonders of the free market at work in Micronesia?
    (I assume the point may be valid despite its having been made by the execrable and preposterous Paul Krugman.)

  15. Tom Giovanetti

    The article in BusinessWeek that started this whole thing, upon which all subsequent articles and Paul Krugman’s commentary are based, omitted important statements and resulted in a complete misrepresentation. All subsequent who have written on this topic are guilty of passing on misrepresentation without bothering to fact-check. You can view IPI’s and Ferrara’s statements at http://www.ipi.org

  16. mythago

    Taking money lowers Bandow’s value as a journalist because it raises the possibility that his opinions have been bought and his articles are less than honest.

    It’s also dishonest because he failed to disclose he was getting paid for his opinions. After all, if he would have written the same thing anyway and he was happy to fleece some fools who thought he was being purchased, why not say so?

    Readers know a writer is getting paid by the publisher. It’s dishonest if the readers don’t know somebody else’s money is attempting to influence what is said.

    pooh, the difference is exactly that everybody knows you’re a paid representative. That’s what a lawyer is.

  17. Revenant

    It’s also dishonest because he failed to disclose he was getting paid for his opinions

    If his opinions were, in fact, genuine rather than bought, then failing to reveal he’d been paid isn’t dishonest. Withholding information is only dishonest if it is done with the intent of deceiving. If the opinions were genuine, withholding information that makes them seem NON-genuine isn’t dishonest.

  18. Pablo

    The issue is that he’s writing advertisements disguised as opinion columns. Whether that’s dishonest is arguable. It is deceitful, and his publishers are clearly not amused.

    As for Cathy’s question, bias is bias whether it stems from zeal or a financial interest. The bias itself doesn’t taint opinion journalism. The taint comes in when the bias is masked, and the piece is found to be something other than what it appeared to be. Partisans usually aren’t that good at hiding their bias, while someone being paid to do so would be better at it.

    I just want to know what it is I’m reading.

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