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Friday, December 23, 2005

Camouflaged Tank Ties

The issue of paying writers to publish favorable opinions appeared in a New York Times report, and Paul Krugman provided more in his column. Today, there are commentaries on this issue in the New York Times and the Washington Post:

On Opinion Page, a Lobby's Hand Is Often Unseen, by Philip Shenon, Commentary, NY Times: Susan Finston of the Institute for Policy Innovation, a conservative research group based in Texas, is just the sort of opinion maker coveted by the drug industry. In an opinion article in The Financial Times on Oct. 25, she called for patent protection in poor countries for drugs and biotechnology products. In an article last month in the European edition of The Wall Street Journal, she called for efforts to block developing nations from violating patents on AIDS medicines and other drugs. Both articles identified her as a "research associate" at the institute. Neither mentioned that, as recently as August, Ms. Finston was registered as a lobbyist for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry's trade group. Nor was there mention of her work this fall in creating the American Bioindustry Alliance, a group underwritten largely by drug companies.

The institute says Ms. Finston's ties to industry should not have prevented her from writing about those issues. Nor is there a conflict, it says, in the work of Merrill Matthews Jr., who writes for major newspapers advocating policies promoted by the insurance industry even though he is a registered lobbyist for a separate group backed by it. "Lobbying is not a four-letter word," said the institute's president, Tom Giovanetti.

But organizations like the institute ... are facing new and uncomfortable scrutiny over their links to special interest groups after the disclosure this week that the Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff had paid at least two outside writers for opinion articles promoting the work of his clients. ... Executives in the public relations and lobbying industries say that the hiring of outside commentators to promote special interests - typically by writing newspaper opinion articles or in radio and television interviews - does happen, although it is impossible to monitor since the payments do not have to be disclosed and can be disguised as speaking fees and other compensation.

While major newspapers and magazines usually insist that outside writers disclose conflicts of interest, editors do not routinely conduct background checks, especially for authors affiliated with credible research groups. Brian Groom, an editor at The Financial Times ... said he did not recall being told of Ms. Finston's ties to the drug and biotechnology industries before publishing the article. The editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, Paul Gigot, said in an interview that "we're absolutely convinced" the paper was not told of Ms. Finston's industry ties. The paper might still have run the article, he said, but with more information about her background.

David Rickey, chairman of the board of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America, ... said the industry opposed the use of outside writers to promote a client's interests unless the financial ties were fully acknowledged. ..."if there is a conflict of interest, it must be disclosed." In announcing the departure of Mr. Bandow last week, the Cato Institute said it required its writers to disclose all affiliations that might influence their work. Mr. Giovanetti of the Institute for Policy Innovation said that he, too, insisted that "anyone working with I.P.I. must disclose any pertinent lobbying relationships and conflicts of interest whenever they act on behalf of I.P.I., including published projects." ...

Here's Michael Kinsley in the Washington Post on the same issue:

Pundit Payola Money Talks. It Writes, Too., by Michael Kinsley, Washington Post: ...It came out last week that a couple of conservative pundits have been on the take from lobbyist extraordinaire Jack Abramoff. He would pay them up to $2,000 for columns and op-ed pieces that advanced the interests of his clients. ... But let's be a bit careful here. Many of us sell our opinions for a living. ... And even though casting stones is very close to a pundit's job definition, are we necessarily without sin? Sure, we like to think that ... our opinions themselves are not for sale. But the two miscreants exposed so far can make the same claim. Doug Bandow and Peter Ferrara are both principled conservatives. ... As far as we know, neither has published a single word that he actually disagrees with.

But there's a difference between paying people for the right to publish their work and paying people because someone else has published their work. What Abramoff was buying for clients was partly access to media real estate (op-ed pages) that he couldn't commandeer himself and partly the endorsement of conservative pundits who didn't necessarily disagree with the positions they took but probably would not have bothered except for the cash. Still, Pundit Payola is only a tiny step beyond what has become common practice in Washington. ...

In recent months we have learned that the Bush administration sees nothing wrong with paying for pro-American articles to be planted in Iraqi newspapers. ...[T]he administration has done the same thing, more or less, here at home, giving a fat grant to multimedia conservative Armstrong Williams for pushing administration policy ... And now it seems that a figure somewhat more influential than the president among the nation's legislators -- Abramoff -- has been doing the same thing. ...

I agree that full disclosure of all financial relationships and other affiliations is needed, but existing rules make these easy to obscure.  If a particular donor gives to a think tank, and a writer receives a salary from the think tank, does the writer have to disclose the relationship to the donor, or just the think tank? Some of this requires investigation, and editors and others printing these opinion pieces could help by being more diligent about checking and disclosing the ties of outside writers who appear on their pages.

    Posted by on Friday, December 23, 2005 at 12:15 AM in Economics, Politics, Press | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (5)

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