This Journalist for Hire

If anyone out there needs a newspaper columnist to promote an agenda, I’m open to suggestion.

I say this because recently it came out that President Bush’s Department of Education paid a $240,000 fee to a prominent conservative commentator named Armstrong Williams to promote its No Child Left Behind law on his television talk show.

It’s now a scandal, with everyone saying Williams breached the most basic journalistic ethic – our independence.

The truth is, if any journalist took money to influence what we write, we’d be fired on the spot.

But jeez _ $240,000?

That’s enough to tempt a man, and it got me thinking. There have got to be some public-relations disasters out there that could use a gun for hire.

Let’s start with one of the most shocking and compelling matters of globally important news.

Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.

Sadly, they have split up after four years of marriage.

For a mere $340,000, I might be induced to write that, despite the breakup, the two will remain really, really good friends, which is the one thing both have insisted on so far.

You may notice that I’m asking $100,000 more than the going rate of $240,000. That’s because no one believes that a pair of exes will stay buddies _ especially celebrity exes. I would not consider Liza Minnelli and David Gest close these days. Nor do you see Britney Spears lunching with her first husband.

So it’ll take a lot of work to make that case about Brad and Jen.

Moving on …

For a mere $480,000, I could be persuaded to promote an industry Americans consider almost as pleasant as the IRS, though not quite. The airlines.

Yes, $480,000 is double the going rate, but we’re talking about the airlines, which randomly charge you $1,600 for a $160 seat if you don’t call at just the right moment.

For $480,000, I’ll turn all that around, writing columns insisting the airlines are customer-friendly, because, for example, they give almost two inches of knee clearance. I will leave out the fact that this two inches becomes less effective when the person in front of you leans the seat back by eight inches. And I’ll add that, although they only feed you three pretzels, if you ask nice, they’ll sometimes give you a second bag.

I think the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can use me, too. I’m afraid I’ll have to charge $540,000, though. This is because I’ll have to do the near-impossible by insisting the flu-vaccine frenzy was really worth it _ the panic and long lines _ even though the closest thing to an epidemic that I know of is a friend of a friend who recently came down with it. Or maybe it was just a bad cold.

Then there’s Amber Frey. My fee for her will have to be $640,000. Amber Frey, you may recall, was the “other woman” in the Scott Peterson mess. He was having a tryst with her when his wife disappeared. After dating him only briefly, she sent out a Christmas card with their picture on it. Hmm.

Anyway, after his arrest, she played the wounded, shy paramour and said she was angry at how the media put her in the spotlight. Then, only days after Peterson got the death penalty, Amber came out with a book and hit the talk-show circuit. On second thought, make it $700,000.

Finally, for the right price, I could be talked into rehabilitating Dan Rather, who just saw four senior colleagues fired for the fake memos on President Bush’s National Guard service that Rather himself defended for weeks after they came under question.

I’d absolutely claim Dan is objective, and that it was just coincidence that his most high-profile attacks over the decades were all against conservative presidents.

I think that does it.

Could there be any other customer out there in even greater need of image rehab than these few?

Obviously, there’s one. But with all this work on my plate, someone will just have to tell the Democrats I’m busy.

(Mark Patinkin can be reached at mpatinkin (at)