Sunday, February 05, 2006

This quill for hire

The cash-for-op-eds scandal draws a couple of disappointing, excuse-making, wagons-circling, reader's-intelligence-insulting responses from the conservative side: in Human Events by Lisa Di Pasquale, and in The American Spectator by Iain Murray.

Before my response, a recusal. A big part of this controversy has to do with the journalist Michael Fumento, who lost his Scripps-Howard column after the revelation that his 2003 book, BioEvolution, was subsidized with an undisclosed 1999 grant of $60,000 to his employer, the Hudson Institute, from the agribusiness giant Monsanto -- which Fumento repeatedly praised, in the book and in several columns. Unlike Doug Bandow, Fumento has not been been actually paid off for op-ed columns, as one writer has wrongly stated; and, also unlike Bandow, he has vociferously defended himself against charges of being on the take. I will not discuss this aspect of the story, for the simple reason that I have known Mike Fumento for many years. I am very sorry about his current predicament, which comes on the heels of some major health problems, and I wish him well. I recuse myself from any further comment. (If you want to find out more, check out the above links for the case against Fumento and for his defense, with plenty more links inside.)

The problem with Murray's and DiPasquale's articles is that they don't so much defend any conservative writers against charges of shilling as offer unabashed defenses of shilling. Murray, whose article is titled, "What Are Op-Eds For?", writes:

An opinion piece—whether an individual op-ed or a column—exists to promote a point of view by argument. It does not seek to establish a fact, but to win people over to a particular viewpoint or opinion. Therefore, the strength of the argument is the key factor in determining the effectiveness of the piece. A sloppily constructed, poorly thought-out argument will convince no one -- while a tightly constructed, coherent, and well-written argument can sway minds. That is why opinion pieces are considered intellectual ammunition in the war of ideas.

The only valid response to a persuasive argument is an equally persuasive argument towards a different conclusion. Yet the witch hunters' central argument has nothing to do with the virtues of the arguments presented by Bandow and others. Their argument is, essentially, that because the writer has not disclosed information about his income, he is essentially untrustworthy and his opinions should not be given the time of day. This argument is flawed enough to make it invalid. In logic, that's called a fallacy.

The argument is fallacious for three reasons.

First, it has nothing to do with the views expressed in the articles. Instead, it dwells on characteristics of the author. In logic, this is called the ad hominem (or ad hom.) fallacy. It should have no effect on the evaluation of the views expressed in the article. So, if someone writes in favor of drug legalization but it is then revealed that he has been paid to write the article by George Soros or another proponent of drug legalization, his argument cannot be validly dismissed on that ground alone.

The argument that full disclosure of any financial interests would solve the problem should be seen in this light. The ad hominem argument cares nothing for transparency. If a writer does not disclose his income source, he is untrustworthy for not being transparent. If he does disclose his income source, he is a paid shill. Yet neither formulation speaks to the actual arguments.

Second, to unpack the fallacy further, another fallacious argument arises: that those who are untainted by private sector money are inherently more trustworthy. This is a form of the fallacy of appeal to authority—"Look at me, you can trust me!" A writer's argument does not gain any more validity through the author's lack of financial ties.

Finally, because of the general applicability of the charge, a third fallacy arises. By broadly asserting that anyone connected financially with private industry is inherently untrustworthy, the Left has engaged in the fallacy of poisoning the well: No writer who has ties to industry deserves to be listened to—their arguments need not even be heard, never mind addressed. The Left's case for transparency relies on poisoning the well for its effectiveness: Once a writer has declared his or her ties, they believe, the reader will not give their arguments credence.


The self-important witch finders blazing with moral righteousness have only one goal in mind: to deny the public access to the ideas advanced by the writers they target. This is not about trust, or ethics, or any other moral consideration. It is about suppression of free speech and public debate. The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." It is neither illegal nor immoral to write about something while having financial ties to private industry. By inventing new social rules to forbid such an act, the leftist witch finders are showing once again just how hostile they are to the ideals on which the American republic stands. Opinion is opinion and should be treated as such. Any other approach to it is fallacious sophistry.

Let's ponder this for a moment. It's an "ad hominem" argument to say that a journalist is tainted by taking money from those about whom he writes favorably? Now that's chutzpah.

As for the argument that an opinion column should be judged not on who has paid for it but on how convincingly it makes its case, its fallacy should be immediately obvious. An argument should be not only convincing but intellectually honest. We should be able, for instance, to count on a writer not to distort the facts (however convincingly she maybe do it) and not to withhold facts unfavorable to her case. Undisclosed financial interest in the slant of an article certainly compromises a writer's intellectual honesty, and hence his credibility. To pretend otherwise is absurd.

The complaint about prejudice against private industry is another red herring, clearly intended to make the conservative knee jerk. In fact, Armstrong Williams, the first of the current batch of columnists implicated in payola scandals, had taken money from the Bush Administration. And does anyone really think that, say, Anna Quindlen would keep her job if it was revealed that she was taking money from abortion-rights groups to write pro-choice columns?

Meanwhile, DiPasquale weighs in with this:

For years liberal writers have had their books subsidized by corporations such as HarperCollins, Putnam and the like. Feminist Naomi Wolf, for instance, lived on the publishing house dole despite mediocre sales. Conservative writers, on the other hand, had to go to think tanks and Regnery (a HUMAN EVENTS sister company) to have their books published.
In Slander, HUMAN EVENTS Legal Correspondent Ann Coulter writes, “Imitating an Alzheimer’s joke, every successive conservative best-seller genuinely is a ‘surprise best-seller’ to publishers. By contrast, it’s hard to think of a single liberal book whose commercial appeal eluded publishing houses -- even those that went on to spectacular failure. Gigantic book advances go to all sorts of authors -- liberal historians, liberal feminists, liberal celebrities, liberal Clinton aides, liberal fighter pilots, liberal comedians. But you can be sure that enormous advances that turn out to be enormous mistakes will never be lavished on any of those ‘surprise best-sellers.’ Book advances are pure wealth transfers to liberal gabbers.”
Is being subsidized by Monsanto more corrupt than being subsidized by HarperCollins?

The only thing this pathetic self-pitying argument can do is compromise conservative writers by pegging them as likely shills. It should be noted that Murray, likewise, frames his argument in unabashedly right-vs-left terms:

FOR MANY YEARS NOW, opinion pieces have been the main vehicle by which conservatives have taken their philosophy to the American people. It was the Austrian economist and enemy of socialism F. A. Hayek who first spelled out to conservatives that they were engaged in a war of ideas. Since the rise of Reaganism, conservatives have been winning this war and the opinion pages of newspapers are one of the chief battlegrounds.

It is therefore in the Left's interest to deny this ground to their enemy. A campaign waged against private financial ties serves not only this purpose but has proved beneficial in other ways. The acquiescence of editors and news services has enabled a sustained witch hunt. The war of ideas, unwinnable for the Left, has been replaced by a war on writers based on prejudice.

Of course, if Murray's argument were to be taken at face value, it would logically follow that it is in the Right's interest to undermine the most basic principles of journalistic ethics.

Part of the reason such arguments are even possible, of course, is that journalistic ethics are already in a pretty sorry state. Intellectual honesty and fairness are not highly prized virtues in opinion writing these days, and there are quite a few pundits whose commentary, whether in writing or over the airwaves, could not be more egregiously biased if it was bought and paid for. Ideological zealotry is no less detrimental to intellectual honesty than financial interest. One is reminded of the famous verse by Humbert Wolfe, written in the 1920s:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
Thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
Un-bribed, there's no occasion to.

But still, one must draw the line somewhere. By Murray's and DiPasquale's "logic," there is no essential difference between opinion articles and the paid "advertorials" that lobbying groups, businesses, and political organizations sometimes place in newspapers and magazines. The day I believe that, I'll be looking for another line of work.


Anonymous said...

Cathy writes, " . . . journalistic ethics are already in a pretty sorry state. Intellectual honesty and fairness are not highly prized virtues in opinion writing these days . . . ."

In a similar vein, Richard John Neuhaus wrote the following a couple weeks ago:

"As you might imagine, I spend a good deal of time talking with reporters. I usually don’t mind it. It comes with the territory. With notable exceptions, reporters are people of good will working hard to write a story that will please their editors. It is true that they are not always the sharpest knives in the drawer. These days most of them have gone to journalism school, or j-school, as it is called. In intellectual rankings at universities, journalism is just a notch above education, which is, unfortunately, at the bottom."

A few paragraphs later, he addresses the question of media bias thusly: "I have been led to embrace something like an Occam’s razor with respect to journalistic distortions: Do not multiply explanations when ignorance will suffice."

This doesn't excuse paid shilling, of course, but it does further Cathy's argument that journalists are often flunkies.

Joan said...

Cathy says, It's an "ad hominem" argument to say that a journalist is tainted by taking money from those about whom he writes favorably?

I don't think it's splitting hairs to mark the distinction between reporters and op-ed columnists. Neither one should distort facts or omit information that is pertinent to their subject at hand. But a reporter "on the take" is a much bigger problem than an op-ed writer.

A reporter is supposed to be giving "just the facts," and if he constructs his stories to benefit whoever is paying him off, that's unlikely to be suspected or found out.

An op-ed columnist is paid for opinions, not straight reporting. I would be horrified to find any op-ed writer shilling a position he does not believe in because he was bought off. What we're seeing in all these cases, though, is people sponsored by corporations (or government administrations) to talk about stuff they'd be saying anyway.

Take the Armstrong Williams business. Do you really believe that Williams lied in his editorials, that he was advocating views he himself does not believe in? I don't. I don't find covering a topic at the request of a sponsor any more disturbing than writing according to an editorial calendar. It's not even as if Williams somehow ripped off his syndicate, who are free to distribute his column or not.

By your reasoning, Cathy, no one should ever be paid by anyone for writing an opinion piece. You get paid by the Globe, aren't you part of their corporate machine, doesn't that inform your opinions and determine what you write about?

Of course it doesn't! (Or if it does, you're going about kowtowing to your corporate masters line in a very strange way.)

What's the difference, say, if Jonah Goldberg gets paid by National Review or by the Heritage Foundation or even by Wal-Mart? Are his views and opinions automatically suspect because he's drawing a salary from a Right-wing organization? Wait -- to a lot of people, the answer to that question is yes, just as to a bunch of other people, everything that Janeane Garafolo and Al Franken say is meaningless because they're paid by Air America.

Wait, again -- you want to draw a distinction between media companies and other corporations? Why should we, if getting paid has such a corrupting influence? Media corporations have agendas to advance, too.

The bottom line for me is, there are a number of writers I trust, and I don't care who pays them. If it's found that a writer lied or misrepresented something solely to benefit his employer, then his credibility will be destroyed, as will his career. Op-ed writers need to be honest about their opinions and the facts that inform them. Obvious shilling will out a writer with or without financial disclosures.

Anonymous said...

joan says that it's OK for op-ed writers to be on the take as long as they only shill for views that they agree with anyway. But that falls apart quickly in the real world. Let's say Monsanto pays a columnist to write in favor of genetically engineered crops. The columnist has no problem taking money for this, since he supports genetic engineering anyway. But later Monsanto decides that they want him to write that global warming is a myth, and now the writer has a problem: he doesn't believe that. But the company insists on it, and since the writer has bills to pay he decides to take the money and write what they want.

Is this farfetched?

Cathy Young said...

Joan, do you really see no difference between a writer getting paid by a publication and by a business to which he or she gives publicity? Between, let's say, a writer praising Wal-Mart in National Review and receiving a check from National Review, and a writer praising Wal-Mart in National Review and receiving a check from Wal-Mart? If he or she receives a check from Wal-Mart, they can still write whatever they want, but they are ethically obligated to identify themselves as a Wal-Mart publicist.

I can say that in my own work, I am always extremely scrupulous to identify any possible conflict of interst; e.g., when I mentioned the Federalist Society in a column about Judge John Roberts (objecting to the notion that his FS membership should be held against him), I added a disclaimer that I have been a paid speaker at a number of FS events.

Dilan said...

It seems to me that the central test is the expectation of the audience. I am a lawyer. When I appear in court, everyone knows I am being compensated to take a position (and indeed, am ethically required to zealously advocate the interests of my client so long as I can do so in good faith and within broadly drawn boundaries).

If the audience of a commentator actually knows or expects or even assumes that he or she is on the take, that's fine. But if the audience assumes that the author is expressing his or her personal opinion, then the pundit is being dishonest with his or her audience when the pundit gives the audience bought and paid for opinions rather than the pundit's own.

I should add one more thing. I think this problem goes beyond out-and-out bribery. There are a lot of op-ed writers and commentators and talk show hosts who mouth the talking points of one or the other party or some private organization in exchange for access, perks, and the like. These commentators also pretend that these statements are their personal opinions when in fact they are bought and paid for, just in a different currency. And they are just as much a problem.

Joan said...

Joan, do you really see no difference between a writer getting paid by a publication and by a business to which he or she gives publicity?

Well, in the case of the editorial writers for the New York Times, no, I don't. That goes for a good part of the reporting staff, as well. They are every bit mouthing off opinions that are bought and paid for as you suspect Williams and company are.

OK: I admit to playing Devil's Advocate here. Yes, someone who's praising Wal-Mart in an op-ed had better disclose that Wal-Mart is signing his checks. But what if Wal-Mart is making big grants to the publication that the writer works for? Or what if Wal-Mart just promises to stock the publication in every store? That may be enough of an incentive for a publication to send down an order to talk up Wal-Mart in a good way. As Dilan already said, influence isn't always direct, or monetary.

It's great that you disclose your financial relationships, Cathy. But I'm sure that some number of your readers, learning of that prior relationship, immediately refuses to consider the points you're making, simply because you once took money from some group.

In an ideal world, all "sponsorships" should be disclosed, but also in an ideal world, people would say, "OK, now let's see what she has to say," instead of thinking, "Corporate shill! Don't have to read this crap!" That goes back to my point about knowing and trusting specific writers.

I will stand by my original point that you all seem to be mixing op-ed writers in with straight reporters, and the two are very different.

W.B. Reeves said...

It's astounding that Cathy should have to school supposed professionals on such elementary ethical questions.

The whole payola defense is further proof, as if any were needed, that in politics ideas follow interests rather than the reverse.

Revenant said...

This whole argument seems strange to me simply because so many op-ed writers are obviously paid shills in the first place. Does anyone seriously believe that Krugman, Coulter, Dowd, et al, are intellectually honest and fair?

Cathy writes:

We should be able, for instance, to count on a writer not to distort the facts (however convincingly she maybe do it) and not to withhold facts unfavorable to her case.

Maybe we should be about to count on that, but we certainly can't! Cathy is one of a handful of op-ed writers I can think of who make a serious effort to honestly present both sides of an issue. Presenting a distorted or incomplete view of the counterargument is the norm.

It is true that monetary interests can distort what a person writes. But the op-ed market today rewards politics, not honesty. Paul Krugman wouldn't earn nearly as much money if he wasn't a reliable shill for the left, nor would Coulter earn nearly as much if she wasn't reliably hard-right. Even if nobody is directly writing them a check, they know what side their bread is buttered on.

Dilan said...

"This whole argument seems strange to me simply because so many op-ed writers are obviously paid shills in the first place. Does anyone seriously believe that Krugman, Coulter, Dowd, et al, are intellectually honest and fair?"

I do think that Krugman is intellectually honest (and indeed, drives conservatives crazy not because he is dishonest but because he understands a lot of conservatives' rhetorical tricks); Coulter is intellectually dishonest, and Dowd is measured by a whole different metric.

That said, the issue isn't whether commentators are fair, or whether they present different perspectives. Of course, commentary is supposed to be one-sided. But that's fundamentally different from someone who is posing as an independent voice asserting his or her own opinion but is instead writing what someone else has induced him or her to write.

Doing the latter, when one's readers believe that you are actually giving your own views, is breaking the compact with your readers.

Revenant said...

Doing the latter, when one's readers believe that you are actually giving your own views, is breaking the compact with your readers.

But that's just it. Krugman writes columns that he, as a highly competent economist, knows are false, simply because he knows that his personal interests lie in defending the liberal position at any cost. Ditto Coulter's defense of absurd right-wing positions like "liberals are traitors".

Thus far, the people who have been found to be on the take have been espousing positions consistent with what they already believed. It isn't like anti-GM people suddenly turned pro-GM after Monsanto paid them off. What they did was sleazy, but not all that different from the typical op-ed policy of taking money to shill for a preset political position.

Revenant said...

Considering for instance how the economy has grown under Democratic presidents and slowed under Republican, it's possible to be both liberal and economist

First of all, no honest and competent economist seriously believes the President determines how well the economy does. That's one of the many reasons Krugman deserves his current reputation as a partisan shill. Honest economists -- indeed, pretty much all economists who don't rely on a major left-wing media company for their paychecks -- blame the 2001 recession on the bursting of the tech bubble in 1999/2000. That's why the recession began before Bush even took office.

Secondly, even if you were the sort of person who mistakenly gave Presidents blame or credit for economic growth, the economy has grown under Bush and is, adjusted for inflation, stronger than it was when he took office. If you think the economy has shrunk under Bush I suggest you look at a calendar, because it isn't 2001 anymore.

Finally, the statement "the economy has grown under Democrats and slowed under Republicans" is true only if you limit your list of Presidents to Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton. Which, again, is the kind of stunt Krugman likes to pull. :)

Revenant said...

Really, professional ethics and political ideology are quite distinct. The issue Ms. Young has raised isn't settled by saying "yeah, all those liberal columnists, or all those conservative columnists, or all those libertarian columnists--they're all of them shills. And all those who agree with me, they're honest."

I don't think I've accused any op-ed writer of honesty, except for Cathy. :)

Yes, journalistic ethics are distinct from political ideology. The difference is that the latter actually exists. The is no "journalistic ethics" that is widely practiced -- just the occasional isolated journalist with a sense of personal ethics.

I'm not defending the people who took money. But the shock and horror at their taking the money reminds me of nothing so much as the shock that the United States would allow professional basketball players to enter the "amateur"-shyeah-right Olympics. It isn't an affront to journalistic ethics, it is an affront to the unjustified illusion that journalistic ethics exist.

Joan said...

from 1948 to 2001, under Republican presidents annual GDP growth averaged 2.86%, under Democratic presidents, 4.08%

Correlation is not causation.

Revenant said...

Larry Bartels looks at over half a century of data and finds partisan control does make a difference in economic growth rates.

And now that he's done, he can enroll in a freshman logic class and learn about the post hoc fallacy. :)

Presidents have no significant effect on the economy; that's a simple fact.

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