Writers’ opinions for hire

IT’S about time to ask whether the American news media have their own version of the Jack Abramoff scandal waiting to come to light.

This week brought another couple of drops to a stream of recent stories concerning writers on the take that is less than a flood, but more than a trickle -- and which should have provoked a great deal more soul-searching and apprehension among editors and news directors than it has.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 9, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 09, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 83 words Type of Material: Correction
Michael Fumento -- The Regarding Media column in the Jan. 21 Calendar section said that the Hudson Institute’s Michael Fumento was dropped by Scripps Howard after it was disclosed that he had accepted payments from Monsanto for writing opinion pieces favorable to its biotech business. Scripps Howard says the columnist was dropped after the news service learned that he had accepted $60,000 from Monsanto in 1999 for a book and did not disclose that fact in columns he wrote that referred to Monsanto.

First came revelations by an Alabama woman that she had been paid $11,000 to write columns favorable to business executive Richard Scrushy during the six-month trial that ended in his acquittal on charges that he committed $2.7 billion in fraud while he was chief executive of HealthSouth Corp. All of the pieces appeared in the Birmingham Times, that city’s oldest black-owned newspaper. A majority of the Scrushy jurors were African American.

The fired executive denies paying for favorable coverage, though he admitted to Associated Press that he read some of the columns before they were printed “to make sure the facts from the trial were correct.” AP obtained documents showing payments to the woman from public relations people employed by Scrushy.


Meanwhile, in a column for the National Review Online, Los Angeles-based freelance writer and commentator Cathy Seipp recounted her rejection of a public relations representative’s proposal that she accept $1,000 “to write an article slamming a lefty organization that a corporate client would enjoy seeing slammed.” Seipp did not identify the person who offered the bribe or the name of the organization they hoped to see criticized.

(Their employer might want to note, though, that if this PR rep thought Seipp was ripe for a bribe, either they were unfamiliar with her work or have a serious reading comprehension problem.)

Coming as they did on the same day, these stories might have seemed pure coincidence but fit rather too neatly into a disquieting sequence.

Last month, syndicated columnist Doug Bandow was dropped by Copley News Service and forced to resign his longtime position as a senior fellow at the Cato Institute after BusinessWeek Online revealed that he had been on the take from Jack Abramoff for nearly 10 years.

Over that period, the crooked Washington lobbyist paid Bandow to write somewhere between 12 and two dozen columns favorable to his clients and their interests. Needless to say, market forces quickly put Bandow -- a self-described libertarian -- out of the column-writing business.

Not so Peter Ferrara, a senior policy advisor of Institute for Policy Innovation -- and a major promoter of privatization on the nation’s op-ed pages -- who also admits that Abramoff made financial contributions to his work but denies that he ever was paid to play. BusinessWeek linked him with Bandow as someone whom the disgraced lobbyist paid to write “op-ed articles favorable to the positions of some of Abramoff’s clients.” The New York Times’ Paul Krugman subsequently notes that Ferrara, in fact, had written favorably of Malaysia and the Northern Marianas Islands, home to one of the world’s most notorious sweatshop economies. Both nations are former Abramoff clients.

Then there was the Hudson Institute’s Michael Fumento, who was dropped by Scripps Howard after it was disclosed that he had accepted payments from Monsanto for writing opinion pieces favorable to its bio-tech business.

All of this comes on the heels of last year’s revelation that columnist and television commentator Armstrong Williams had been paid $240,000 by the U.S. Department of Education to use his journalistic platforms to promote President Bush’s education policies. Williams’ column was immediately dropped by his syndicate, Tribune Media Services.

Beyond the obvious -- corruption bad, integrity good -- aspect of all this, there are several disturbing implications worth considering.

One is that -- with the exception of Seipp’s -- all these cases came to light almost by accident, as part of inquiries into other matters. The Birmingham Times fiasco surfaced only when the angry writer came forward on her own because she felt Scrushy still owed her money. Nothing in the ordinary journalistic or editorial process brought this corruption, which is precisely what it is, out into the open. Bandow’s example suggests that this has been going on for some time, but the painful truth is that nobody now working in the U.S. news media can say for certain that they have any idea how long this has been going on or what the extent of it is.

What we can say is that a couple of powerful trends among news organizations make bribery of this sort more likely and more possible than they were a few years ago.

One of those forces is the continuing round of cutbacks forced on newspapers and broadcast news organizations by their corporate proprietors. Smaller staffs and tighter budgets have forced an increasing reliance on freelance contributors, who work without benefits for shrinking fees.

There’s no link between income and integrity, but it’s fair to assume that poorly paid people doing piece work probably are more vulnerable to transitory temptation than people receiving a regular salary with health insurance and the promise of a little pension.

Another is the growth of what might be called the op-ed culture in which more and more space and time is given over to opinion rather than journalism. Most of the people writing or broadcasting those opinions have other jobs, particularly think-tank affiliations, like those of Fumento, Ferrara and Bandow.

The truth is that most editors on most papers do little or nothing even to check whether these people have conflicts of interest -- though it’s also a fact there is nothing short of subpoena power that would ferret out payments under the table.

The more uncomfortable admission would involve an honest appraisal of the role played by relatively inexpensive syndicated material, such as that Bandow, Fumento and Williams once provided. The overwhelming majority of the editors who purchased their columns from their syndicates never had even met the writers, let alone had enough contact with them to form an opinion of their character or integrity.

Again, nothing will completely protect a news organization against a crook on the take, but an asset as important as integrity probably ought not to be entrusted to what is, for all intents and purposes, little more than a shot in the dark.

Things like the Alabama situation probably are a rarity. It wasn’t all that long ago that they were routine. Legendary baseball owner Bill Veeck used to quip, “I never worry about sportswriters. You can buy them with a steak.”

Small sums of money didn’t hurt either, and until the news media cleaned up their houses in the postwar era, they were almost as common in many newsrooms as free drinks.

If the people running our news organizations today don’t look up from the bottom line and consider what’s going on around them, they will find themselves back in those bad old days -- with nothing to sell.