Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Pundits and Ethics

Doug Bandow's mea culpa in the Los Angeles Times today ("The Lesson Jack Abramoff Taught Me"), after acknowledging his own mistakes, makes the case that what happened to him is not an isolated example. He writes:

"Many supposedly "objective" thinkers and "independent" scholar/experts these days have blogs or consulting gigs, or they are starting nonprofit Centers for the Study of …. Who funds their books, speeches or other endeavors? Often it's those with an interest in the outcome of a related debate. The number of folks underwriting the pursuit of pure knowledge can be counted on one hand, if not one finger.

"These are not excuses for my actions — these are issues that should be addressed. Is it "journalism" if the research is helped along by a foundation whose board members have some interest in the subject? How can we be sure that newspapers keep advertisers out of news decisions? Don't broadcast media hire consultants and pollsters to contribute to their news coverage, people who could benefit financially from promoting the ideas of their other clients? And haven't reporters sometimes pocketed thousands of dollars speaking at conventions or corporate events and then covered those businesses — or their issues — in one way or another?"

Over at The Washington Note, Steve Clemons renews his callfor a "best practices" effort because of his concerns that it is far too easy now for think tanks, expert organizations and other groups that provide pundits and commentators to "become money launderers for lobbyists and corporate consulting organizations." (Steve will be speaking on this issue at an event at The Nixon Center to be held next Friday, January 13, by the way--we'll cover the event on these pages).

Readers of The Washington Realist have noted, from time to time, posts dealing with these questions. They need to be discussed. Think tanks need to return to their original intended purpose--to think, to provide analysis and recommendations--not to be lobbyists under a different name. Journalists need to decide whether they want to be reporters searching out facts or conveyors of partisan or interest talking points.

Posted this as part of the discussion at The Washington Note:

Janine Wedel wrote a very controversial article for The National Interest back in 2000 that touched on some of these issues with regard to U.S. assistance to Russia in the 1990s, but at the heart of that problem and the one Steve is discussing here is what Wedel termed "transidentity"--the "ability of a transactor to change his identity at will"--meaning institutional affiliation or occupation. Analyst, journalist, consultant, academic, and so on.

Any "best practices" effort has to confront this issue of "transidentity" among not only think tank people but also members of the media.

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists may be a good place to start. Journalists are called to "Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two." Journalists, according to this code, also are enjoined to "Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility. Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity. Disclose unavoidable conflicts."

Posted by Nikolas Gvosdev at January 4, 2006 05:29 PM
The point being made is very well taken. I just finished reading the current issue of an international affairs journal—not The National Interest—in which the author of one essay, a program director at the publication’s sponsoring thinktank, criticized Russian president Vladimir Putin and defended the country’s billionaire oligarchs by comparing them to “the wealthy men who built the great American industrial and transportation empires,” including the one whose fortune helps sustain the thinktank in question. While I have no information—much less proof—of any impropriety, the rather strained argumentation in the piece in question makes me wonder how much largesse the thinktank in question has received more recently from the sources close to the oligarchs.
Think tanks are the new arena for soft money.
Didn't Abramoff have a connection to National Interest?
Thanks, "anonymous", for your question. Before I discuss it further, I love the use of the deliciously vague and undefined term "connection" which could mean anything from outright sponsorship to a casual encounter in a hallway.

I assume that "anonymous" is referring to a report that appeared in The New Republic on May 16, 2005,by Franklin Foer (Writers Bloc), as follows:

"In August 1997, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay traveled to Russia in the company of his frequent companion, the now-infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff. For six days, he huddled with government ministers and oil executives and golfed at the Moscow Country Club. Any pleasant memories of this tour of post-communist prosperity, however, have surely vanished. The trip now threatens the Texan's political career and has placed Abramoff at the center of congressional inquiries. DeLay, though, was not the only prominent conservative to see Russia the Abramoff way. Two months before DeLay touched down there, Abramoff's firm shepherded a contingent of Washington journalists and thinkers around Moscow--an itinerary of meetings and meals designed to please the trip's funder, a Russian energy concern called NaftaSib. This journey included Tod Lindberg, then-editor of The Washington Times editorial page; Insight magazine's James Lucier; and Erica Tuttle, The National Interest's assistant managing editor at the time."

I began work at The National Interest in 2001, so this event is before my time there. But in reviewing magazine records, I find no connections; Abramoff never contributed money to the magazine personally or through any of his organizations, sponsored any articles, or put advertising in its pages. So there is no "connection" between TNI and Abramoff in any institutional sense. Nor, following Ms. Tuttle's trip, can I find any reference in TNI's pages to Naftasib; certainly Peter Rutland's Fall 1997 piece on Russia, where he writes "The reality, however, does not fit this glossy image of reformist Russia, which has been artfully buffed by Western financiers keen to sell bonds to emerging market investors" would not have fit whatever Abramoff's agenda was.

I cannot speak for any individual working at TNI at that time as to whether they had any Abramoff encounters (with him personally or with groups or other individuals connected to him) in their capacity as private individuals in Washington, and I do not know whether Ms. Tuttle went on this trip having been invited as a TNI editor or for any other reason. She and other TNI editors at that time are no longer working at the magazine.

Other than mentioning Ms. Tuttle at the beginning of her article--the excerpt I cited--Mr. Foer's subsequent article, while it discusses other conservative publications and organizations and their relationship with Abramoff in great detail, never again mentions The National Interest and no other reporting on Abramoff's activities in Washington has mentioned any sort of "connection" between Abramoff and the magazine--and I hope that no one is now trying to manufacture one.
I would think that a neocon-lite mag like the New Republic would be more careful about throwing stones in glass houses. How exactly are they funded? And those special advertising sections which are thinly disguised propaganda from the Saudis but given legitimacy by the willing participation of their editors and other "experts" in agreeing to speak in those "panels"/
I think a distinction needs to be drawn between funding and buying influence. Some of the comments here and other sites on this issue assume that any donation or support given is automatically corrupting and tawdry. There is a difference between support given because of general agreement with the line or direction of research versus line-by-line control exerted over a particular document or report.
Very few magazines are self-sufficient anymore, particularly ones which deal with policy. Advertising and subscriptions aren't enough. So the question is whether the public discourse would be better served if Foreign Policy, Washington Quarterly, Orbis, National Interest, etc. disapeared as "non viable" publications or whether foundaton and corporate support are necessary evils in order to keep the public square up and running.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?