From paid opinion pieces for major newspaper editorial pages to payoffs to a Congressional aide spouse, the wide net around the activities of lobbyist Jack Abramoff has touched the nation’s major media corporations. Writing in the Miami Herald, Edward Wasserman uses the Abramoff affair to criticize the editorial page custom of “don’t ask about op-ed/column provenance” — a practice Wasserman calls an “ethical brothel.”
And in an “unprecedented” move, in 2000 the Magazine Publishers Association (MPA) allocated $10 million to an Abramoff-run public affairs campaign designed to forestall a scheduled postal rate increase.
MPA hired Preston Gates Ellis Rouvelas & Meeds LLP — a Seattle-based law firm (Gates is the father of the Microsoft founder) — and Abramoff worked the account for Preston Gates for at least one year. MPA was the firm’s sixth largest client.
According to MPA, Preston Gates directed the association to make a $25,000 contribution to Toward Tradition, an Orthodox Jewish foundation also based in Seattle. The plea agreement shows that Abramoff paid $500,000 over a 10-month period, through a non-profit, to the wife of “Staffer A,” widely believed to be former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) deputy chief of staff Tony Rudy; Rudy worked with Abramoff after leaving DeLay’s employment. “The total amount paid to the wife of Staffer A was obtained from clients that would and did benefit from Staffer A’s official actions regarding the legislation on internet gambling or opposing postal rate increases,” according to the plea agreement.
MPA represents major media giants such as
Conde Nast (Vanity Fair),
Hearst Magazines (Harper’s Bazaar),
McGraw Hill (Business Week),
Meredith Corp (Better Homes & Gardens),
The Reader’s Digest Association and
Propaganda as Untainted Opinion
In December, Business Week Online reported that Bando and Peter Ferrara had written for Abramoff without informing their readership; Bando resigned but Ferrara is unrepentant. Accuracy in Media compares Abramoff’s actions with that of George Seros, but fails to note that Seros is spending his own money, not client funds.
Wasserman’s (Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University) concerns about the ethics of the natin’s editorial boards are relevant to lobbying practice as well: let the sun shine in (also known as transparency):
[T]he distinction between principled argument and paid propaganda is worth upholding, and you can’t offer the one masqueraded as the other. Claiming that convictions are still your own even if somebody else is paying you for them isn’t tenable. Your paymaster must be identified.
In today’s changing mediascape, this admonition cannot be taken too seriously. With major media and columnists freed from the contraint of column inches, there is no good reason why each byline should not be linked to biographical information about the reporter or columnist. In the case of business press, those bios should include information about stock holdings (whether writing a product review or a business forecast). Commentary on the op-ed page should include details about who paid for the piece — and not just the lobbyist (in the case of Abramoff, for example) but also the firms that the lobbyist is billing. Make is easy for the reader to know who is doing the ox goring (or ax grinding, as the case may be).
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