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January 28, 2005

Sealing Off Their Towers, for Lack of a Footnote

Still perplexed by the fact that folks now apparently think it indicates corruption for unabashed advocates of particular causes to simultaneously further their ends through writing and consulting, I'm merely going to offer the suggestion that writers, even pure bloggers, ought to be very careful about how much ground they put between themselves and the accused. First the details of the two latest incidents to spark the trend, as provided by Eric Boehlert of Salon:

... HHS had paid syndicated columnist and marriage advocate Maggie Gallagher $21,000 to write brochures and essays and to brief government employees on the president's marriage initiative. ...

... [Michael] McManus, who could not be reached for comment, was paid approximately $10,000 for his work as a subcontractor to the Lewin Group, a health care consultancy hired by HHS to implement the Community Healthy Marriage Initiative, which encourages communities to combat divorce through education and counseling. McManus provided training during two-day conferences in Chattanooga, Tenn., and also made presentations at HHS-sponsored conferences.

We can argue about the appropriate degree of disclaimers that opinion writers — opinion writers — must make about consulting work, speaking gigs, and organizational picnics either within or appended to related columns. Kate O'Beirne thinks that, by disclosing her work, Gallagher "wouldn't have looked conflicted, she would have looked even more credentialed as a recognized expert on marriage." Michelle Malkin and La Shawn Barber think, in the words of the latter, that "failing to disclose you're being paid to push a 'product,' with taxpayer's money, is the problem, especially when readers value your opinion and 'independent' viewpoint."

Although the columns were not the "products" for which either Gallagher or McManus were paid, that's a worthwhile sentiment. But I encourage those who share Malkin and Barber's reaction to consider this aspect of the Salon piece very carefully:

Responding to the latest revelation, Dr. Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at HHS, announced Thursday that HHS would institute a new policy that forbids the agency from hiring any outside expert or consultant who has any working affiliation with the media. ...

"We live in a complicated world and people wear many different hats," he says. "People who have expertise might also be writing columns. The line has become increasingly blurred between who's a member of the media and who is not. Thirty years ago if you were a columnist, then you were a full-time employee of a newspaper. Columnists today are different."

Those lines are indeed blurring. In fact, it is increasingly the case that one can be a "columnist" without actually writing a "column." A few controversies down the road, and experts who wish to be eligible for government contracts will be well advised to abstain from blogging.

That wouldn't represent a tremendous loss to society (yet), although it would surely diminish one of the most beneficially revolutionary aspects of the blogosphere. What it illustrates, however, is that, as with the new HHS policy, public experts are being corralled back behind their closed office doors. That's not a step toward the open contextualization of experts' and writers' work that has become increasingly desirable.

At least for we on the right, who've only recently begun to find ways around a mainstream media that has largely shut us out, unblurring those lines would be a step backwards. Folks such as Gallagher and McManus will still be able to take government jobs, they'll still be able to promote their causes, but when it comes to regularly reaching a mainstream audience, they'll have to be filtered through the ink of professional journalists.

That's not the only retrenchment lurking between the lines of the Salon piece:

The problem springs from the failure of both Gallagher and McManus to disclose their government payments when writing about the Bush proposals. But one HHS critic says another dynamic has led to the controversy, and a blurring of ethical and journalistic lines: Horn and HHS are hiring advocates -- not scholars -- from the pro-marriage movement. "They're ideological sympathizers who propagandize," says Tim Casey, attorney for Legal Momentum, a women's rights organization. He describes McManus as being a member of the "extreme religious right."

Cutting through various pretensions, the essential difference between experts who are "advocates" and experts who are "scholars" is that scholars remain "objective" nonparticipants, while advocates draw on what they've learned about important topics and work to apply it. As with journalism, exposing the deceit of "objectivity" has been one of the successes of the growing ethos that has — perhaps taken to an extreme — tripped up Gallagher and McManus.

Indeed, many of us have rightly argued that it is better to have our experts and our columnists completely open about what it is they advocate, and without regard to payments from the government, there has been absolutely no question about what that means in the cases of Gallagher and McManus. I happen to agree that somebody who has worked, for pay or gratis, for a group or on a policy ought to note as much when writing about that group or that policy.

But while conservatives argue at that specific level, everybody else is rushing right past it, as the Nashua Telegraph proves in an editorial to which Malkin links:

[Armstrong] Williams and Gallagher, if they prefer government service, could quit their jobs as commentator and columnists, and start up their own advocacy agency on behalf of federal programs.

In Gallagher's case, she's already such an advocate, and nobody who pays any attention can fail to know that. We all suffer — in my opinion — if we return to the day of the ostensible purity of the "independent commentator" and the "objective" scholar. So let's be careful about how much we concede in our rush to insist on footnotes.

ADDENDUM:
Marriage Debate Blog has an interesting roundup of commentary.

Posted by Justin Katz at January 28, 2005 6:16 PM
Politics
Comments

I agree totally. This whole objectivity mantra is contrived and being twisted to the point that like politics, no one who is any good will want to throw their hat or 2 cents into the ring.

If the government needs to publish a paper, there are several ways to do it:
1) Assign some one on the staff to write it. Result- bureaucratese.
2) Have a scholar ensconed within the ivory tower do it. Result- flowery prose lacking common sense (illiberal talking points) or something so dry & stuffy that puts readers to sleep, or
3) Columnists who write for a living who are chosen for their skill and worldview (if the topic is Safe Sex is not enough, then Planned Parenthood is not your candidate -- anymore than hiring an big-oil advocate to write on the pros of fuel cells). Result- an article that reads well from the advocate's POV.

The bigger concern for me is the legislators getting into that act and enacting some hideous and onerous act that, as you put it, forces the pundits out of the commons.

PS, I came over from La Shawn's corner

Posted by: Andy at January 29, 2005 3:24 AM

"Michelle Malkin: "Can't tell you how deeply disappointed I am to read this, especially given that Gallagher has been a fearless and independent (or so I had thought) voice in defense of traditional marriage." from Marriage Debate.

This concept of the necessity of being an independent voice confuses me. Does this mean that Michelle Malkin weights the validity of any writing based on whether it's being paid for or not? What kind of credence does this lend to Michelle's writing considering that she's often paid to write? Should we start asking Michelle before we read anything she's written whether or not she was 'on the clock'?

Posted by: smmtheory at January 29, 2005 8:48 AM

Just so I'm clear about this, this blog wouldn't have a problem with the Clinton Administration paying Al Franken for his comedy bits, right?

Posted by: Sam at January 29, 2005 1:53 PM

ANYONE paying Al Franken for his stabs at humor and opinion must have problems beyond aspersions about payola. Heh.

Posted by: Chairm at January 29, 2005 3:35 PM

Sam,
I agree with Chairm, if it could actually be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Farnken does comedy, or he actually could find somebody gullible enough to pay him for it, then more power to him.

Posted by: smmtheory at January 29, 2005 5:22 PM

Sam,

I think the sentiment has already been voiced: I'd object to such a payment on the grounds that it would be a waste of money. If the administration hired Franken for contracting work on something related to, say, the entertainment business, that would be less of an issue. And it would only be a bit more objectionable, I'd say, if Franken proceded to promote a program while doing his "comedy" (assuming it's obviously something he'd support as a matter of course).

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 30, 2005 1:12 AM