January 18, 2006
Journalistic Ethics and the Abramoff Scandal
By Bruce Bartlett
With no real issues to promote, Democrats are putting all their eggs into the basket of corruption to restore their political fortunes. They and their friends in the mainstream media are working overtime to connect everyone and everything on the right side of the political spectrum to disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to multiple felonies.
One channel that Democrats and liberals are working is tying conservative think tanks to the Abramoff scandal. They know that these think tanks have been one of the most effective forces in Washington over the last 30 years in advancing a conservative agenda. If these organizations can be tainted by Abramoff, it may help neuter a major source of ideas, research and funding for conservative initiatives.
Democrats hit pay dirt a few weeks ago when Cato Institute senior fellow Doug Bandow admitted taking money directly from Abramoff to write columns supporting some of his Indian tribe interests. What got Bandow into double-trouble is that he had a syndicated column with Copley News Service, which meant that "journalistic ethics" applied in his case.
Journalistic ethics are almost a contradiction in terms. We see in the papers and on the news every day that journalists are among the least ethical people in society. They think nothing about intruding on the grief of families in their darkest hours, as they did in the recent West Virginia coal mine disaster. Reporters pride themselves on having no loyalty to their country or anything else except getting the story, whatever the cost. And they justify all their obnoxious behavior on the peoples' "right to know," when all they are really doing is indulging their own prurient compulsion to know everything about everyone.
Nevertheless, there is one area where journalistic ethics has some validity and that is that reporters (or columnists) are not supposed to be paid directly by sources they write about. If nothing else, it creates an appearance of impropriety. While in Bandow's case, I have no doubt that his views and Abramoff's were the same on the issues he wrote about, it can reasonably be assumed that he would have written on different topics those weeks had Abramoff's money not been a factor.
For this sin, Bandow was fired by the Cato Institute and lost his column as well. Maybe now is the time for him to put his Stanford law degree to work. In the field of law, a willingness to take money from sleazy characters and say whatever is necessary on their behalf is seen as a virtue, not a character flaw.
More problematic is the case of Peter Ferrara, a fellow with the Dallas-based Institute for Policy Innovation. He also admitted taking money from Abramoff to write studies and op-ed columns on his behalf. The difference is that Ferrara does not have a syndicated column or regular newspaper slot. He is simply a free-lancer who writes about whatever he feels like. While he should have disclosed his relationship with Abramoff, Ferarra was not bound by journalistic ethics, and therefore has not suffered the same punishment as Bandow. He remains employed by IPI.
No doubt, Ferrara will have a harder time in the future placing op-eds. Newspapers will certainly insist on knowing whether he has been retained by anyone to write on whatever topic he has written about. But there is nothing inherently wrong with writing articles about subjects one has been paid to write about. Corporations, labor unions and other special interests have their staff and their agents write articles all the time promoting their interests. As long as those interests are transparent, everything is kosher.
In the latest case, Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Fumento has been accused of an ethical lapse because he solicited funds from the giant agribusiness company Monsanto while writing columns about biotechnology. Because he failed to disclose this relationship, he has lost his column with Scripps Howard News Service.
What is different about the Fumento case, however, is that no Monsanto money flowed into his bank account. The money went to Hudson to support its overall program. There is no evidence that Fumento benefited monetarily. Therefore, to my mind, there has been no ethical lapse and no justification for punishment. Fumento remains employed by the Hudson Institute.
What is going on here, I think, is an effort to demonize perfectly reasonable, standard fundraising practices in order to inhibit the ability of conservative think tanks to compete in the realm of ideas with liberal newspapers, television networks, universities and foundations. If liberals and Democrats can make it seem as if the receipt of any corporate money by a think tank automatically taints all the work of its writers and researchers, then they will have won a great victory.
Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate