MICHAEL Fumento, the self-described “extremely pro-biotech” journalist who lost his syndicated column after Business Week revealed he’d solicited money from Monsanto, is mad at me. That’s because I wrote in my Jan. 19 National Review Online column that he deserved to lose it, and that I’d like to see more criticism of Op-Ed payola from the right as well as the left.
In making his defense, Fumento had written a column (for TownHall.com) that struck me as more of an unwitting self-prosecution. Exhibit A: gratuitous description of Monsanto’s “exciting biotech products.” Exhibit B: complaint that it should have “meant something” to Scripps Howard News Service that he wrote all his 100-plus columns for free. My God, yes, it certainly should have. Namely, that if the news service wasn’t paying for them, someone else must have been.
Fumento later angrily responded to my column with his own Jan. 25 National Review Online commentary (for which I paid him $20, some newly collectible WB tote bags I had lying about and a few shares of Monsanto. Kidding!).
He argued that National Review Online editors should have known “an attack on me from the right would have vastly more impact than one from the left.... This is a time to band together against the witch-hunters, not to succor those who aid them.” So I ought to have kept quiet with my thoughts, because, after all, we’re on the same side politically.
But I don’t believe the current cash-for-comment brouhaha is a witch hunt, because though there never were such things as witches, there are, unfortunately, opinion writers on the take -- more than I ever used to imagine.
This brings me to who else is mad at me for not keeping my mouth shut: Sharon Waxman, a New York Times Hollywood correspondent working on a pundit payola news feature.
A couple of weeks ago, she flew out to the paper’s Washington bureau, partly to nail down what became known there as “the Cathy Seipp anecdote” -- ruined for the Times by Cathy Seipp daring to use it in a Cathy Seipp column first.
Waxman originally had called because she’d heard -- correctly -- that a public relations person had offered me $1,000 a couple of years ago to write an article slamming a lefty organization that a corporate client wanted to see slammed and also -- incorrectly -- that I’d actually considered cooperating for a few minutes.
Out of professional courtesy, and because I do believe these spin shops deserve to have their feet put to the fire for such practices, I confirmed the incident had happened. But at the time we spoke, I didn’t know which big D.C. PR firm was behind the offer and, in any case, was unwilling to get its factotum in trouble by giving the New York Times his name.
Thus began a series of calls from Waxman to a self-employed PR person she suspected was the person who’d offered me the money, in which she threatened to burn him (by contacting his other clients, all small, nonpolitical businesses) if he didn’t cooperate -- by telling her things she wanted to know about the big company that was the focus of her article. She also said that he’d better not tell me or anyone else about this conversation or the deal was off, and tried very hard to make him believe that I’d given up his name, which, of course, I hadn’t.
When journalists go from keeping secrets about sources to expecting sources to keep secrets about them, something in the media has begun to stink with self-importance. I think this corner of the sausage factory could do with some inspection and fresh air, so I wrote about all this on my blog. I also put up a Muscle Beach-style picture Fumento had posted on his website, in which he’d posed in a skimpy swimsuit as proof against accusations that he’s fat. (He’s not, for the record, and hubba-hubba.)
Some of my readers appreciated this, some didn’t, and one called it a cheap shot. Maybe it was, except that Fumento was the one who’d originally posted it on the Internet. In any case, he’s since replaced it with a close-up of a baboon’s rear end, captioned, “Cathy Seipp shows her best side.” So that’s what I get for hot-linking.
FUMENTO IS NOT the only one to see pundit payola as a partisan politics issue. Waxman told me that she thinks it’s a problem of the right paying commentators to manipulate public opinion. Say what you like about the liberally biased mainstream media, but unfortunately the evidence so far suggests that they’ve got a point. (Armstrong Wlliams, Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus are among the conservative pundits caught on the take.)
But this topic began when the Jack Abramoff scandal put an end to syndicated columnist Doug Bandow’s store-bought thoughts supporting Indian gambling. Although the libertarian right is for legalized vice in whatever form, it’s the victimologists on the left who see Indians as a protected class deserving special privileges. And a rich company such as Monsanto, which agreed to subsidize Fumento when he asked, just doesn’t want any pesky environmentalists eating into profits. I suspect that essentially all this boils down to money rather than ideology.
In any case, members of a free press have no business expecting other members to keep quiet in order to avoid embarrassment to themselves or their employers. This is called omerta in other special societies, ones that are actually scary. In mine, it’s an offer I can easily refuse.