"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Pay for Op-Eds Business and My Experience

When I was newly minted with J.D. in hand and some conservative organization experience built-up, I called friends and asked for help finding work. One of the referrals was to a high profile lobbying/public relations firm with a high profile head. I will not name either of the above for fear of getting sued by them. I attended an interview and they explained the nature of some of the work.

One of the things it was proposed I could do was to write op-eds that would later be issued under the name of more famous persons in favor of some public policy initiative or position. At the same time, I'm sure that some of these persons would write their own op-ed, sufficiently proud of their own style and convictions not to turn the job over to the hired gun at firm X. It never occurred to me that anything in that process was wrong. The famous person would be someone who could agree with the stated position. What they would be selling would be their access to the editorial pages of the nation's newspapers and magazines. This is not bribery, but rather someone paying you to say what you would already say if the opportunity arose.

Now, I've heard the Cato Institute's Doug Bandow is basically done for, having taking significant money from Abramoff for columns he wrote. That is a shame. Doug Bandow is a strong writer and thinker.

On the surface, the problem goes like this: I like cake. I want to eat cake. I'm going to eat cake. Somebody steps up and says, "Hey, why don't you eat that cake NOW and I'll pay you for it?" And you do. Wouldn't seem to be an ethical lapse.

But it is and the real answer is revealed by imagining that everyone had full information. The newspaper or magazine wouldn't run the piece if they knew about the payment. The think tank you might work for wouldn't allow you to take the payment because their credibility is even more important than yours. And you haven't told anyone these things because deep down, you know how they would have reacted.

And that's why it's wrong. Take away the self-interest and look at the interests of others and it shines forth bright as day.

Now, I never took that job. Nobody ever slipped me a check in exchange for my promotion of a particular view at their urging. But I might have done it and could have done it without getting as far down the moral analysis as I did in this post.

In the final analysis, I'm sorry for Doug Bandow and damn glad I've had this opportunity to think it through before anyone offered me the chance to screw up.

7 comments:

James Elliott said...

Bravo, Hunter. Very insightful and admirable.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I disagree, HB. Nothing wrong with ghostwriting or using ghostwriters. Jack Kennedy barely got near Profiles in Courage but rode the Pulitzer his insiders monkeyed for him all the way to the presidency.

I'm sure that when JFK finally read the book, he liked it.

Dali used a team of kid painters to do the scutwork.

I don't even have a problem with a legislator letting Dow Chemical or the ACLU write the wording of a bill, as long as the legislator reads it and agrees with it.

Now what Mr. Bandow did, unacceptable. Taking money from both the paper/syndicator and an outside, interested party betrays them both. A man cannot serve two masters.

Hunter Baker said...

Tom, your last remark is my whole point. The ghostwriting thing is ancillary to the primary issue. The main issue is getting paid for an op-ed by a party outside the writer/publication relationship.

As an aside:

I was stunned when I read about the Kennedy ghostwritten book and Pulitzer in Chris Matthew's book about Kennedy and Nixon. Shows how naive I was. I grew up accepting the Kennedy as son of God idea. Nothing my parents taught me, just the natural cultural glow.

Hunter Baker said...

Appreciate the kind words, JFE.

Kathy Hutchins said...

Jack Kennedy barely got near Profiles in Courage but rode the Pulitzer his insiders monkeyed for him all the way to the presidency.

At my age I cannot but be cynical about politicians and journalists. I take much more seriously the rather less publicized supposition that a ghostwriter also wrote Jack's honors thesis at Harvard, later published (and very certainly extensively rewritten by Arthur Krock at this point) as While England Slept. I say this while freely acknowledging that expecting Ivy League schools to be cleaner than Capitol Hill must be listed in the DSM somewhere.

connie deady said...

I disagree, HB. Nothing wrong with ghostwriting or using ghostwriters. Jack Kennedy barely got near Profiles in Courage but rode the Pulitzer his insiders monkeyed for him all the way to the presidency.

Hardly comparable to compare a piece of literature to an item allegedly coming out of a thinktank. Biographies are often ghostwritten. Research and opinion articles are generally considered to be the work of the author, because that is his job.

I'm not sure the issue is serving two masters, but rather one of deception, though maybe they are the same thing.

What seems wrong to me is that he is passing himself off as a person who represents the ideas and interests of the CATO institute, but in reality he represents the people who pay him to use his name. He's letting his name be used for someone else's agenda.

While he might agree with what is written, he's allowing his writings to be dictated by someone else. It seems to me to be sort of a "soul selling". Who knows what other things he might have written had he been independent.

I'm not sure that it's any different than a front organization for the mafia, in some respects. It is an attempt to deceive the readers regarding who really controls the content and whose agenda is being served. There is a behind the scenes entity attempting to use someone else's legitimacy to put forward their agenda without owning up to the fact that they are the string pullers.

Devang said...

"But it is [an ethical lapse] and the real answer is revealed by imagining that everyone had full information. ... Take away the self-interest and look at the interests of others and it shines forth bright as day."

Quite beautifully put, if I may say so.