Who Else Got Payola From Bush?

Now that conservative commentator Armstrong Williams has been cast into the outer darkness for accepting $241,000 from the Bush administration in return for his support of the No Child Left Behind initiative, it’s time to ask some hard questions.

First, what other journalists has the Bush administration paid to say nice things about it? Williams, after all, was a relatively small fish in the pundit ocean _ and one who could be counted on to support the administration’s policies, even without the benefit of direct financial persuasion.

Indeed, the sheer volume of cheerleading for the administration among its many media supplicants brings to mind this ditty by the English poet Humbert Wolfe, which has obvious trans-Atlantic applications: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist/(Thank God!) the British journalist./But seeing what the man will do/Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”

But apparently there is occasion to, which, again, raises the question of what other (illegal) investments of taxpayer funds have been made along these lines. If a fairly obscure conservative commentator’s support for a popular piece of bipartisan legislation merits a quarter-million-dollar payoff, what would a liberal New York Times columnist’s support for the Iraq war be worth?

Let me, as Richard Nixon used to say, make one thing perfectly clear: I have no idea if any journalist other than Williams has sold his or her opinions to our Ministry of Truth.

Yet under the circumstances, which include the administration’s use of taxpayer money to generate phony “news stories” about both No Child Left Behind and the new Medicare law, and other increasingly sophisticated manipulations of the media, it’s a question that needs to be asked, and, more to the point, investigated vigorously.

(Late note: As this column was going to press, journalist David Corn reported that Williams told him “this happens all the time,” and that “there are others” who have entered into similar arrangements with the Bush administration).

Second, speaking of media manipulation, it’s high time that other instances of outright propaganda masquerading as something else get the attention they deserve. For example, as Josh Marshall points out on his excellent Talking Points Memo blog (www.talkingpointsmemo.com), the practice of what he calls “Op-Ed payola” continues both unabated, and largely unreported.

It works like this: A high-powered lobbying firm paid to pursue some controversial initiative decides it would be a good thing if a prominent public figure, or diplomat, or academic, or what have you, would write an opinion piece in support of its client’s position.

Of course, the lobbying firm can always contact the usual suspects and ask them to produce the requisite text. This, however, involves a lot of hassle on all sides. For one thing, to the extent the eminence employed for this purpose retains the power of independent thought, the commissioned piece might not represent a sufficiently abject tribute to the client’s point of view.

Fortunately, our beneficent free market has devised a wonderfully efficient solution to this dilemma. The lobbying firm simply writes the opinion piece itself, and then offers to pay a prominent person a certain sum, in return for that person’s willingness to pass the piece off as his or her own work.

According to Marshall, some national and many regional newspapers are easy marks for this sort of thing. No doubt the “authors” of such pieces would defend what they do in the same way Williams justified his acceptance of taxpayer cash: he pointed out that he already supported No Child Left Behind, so what was wrong with being paid to say so?

This is reminiscent of a lady accepting a gentleman’s offer of monetary compensation for her favors, and then claiming subsequently that she would have granted them for free. Perhaps so – but that doesn’t change the nature of the transaction.

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)