Columnists are different from the rest of us in journalism. They are paid to have opinions. They do more than report; they advocate. Sometimes they become wealthy, famous and in high demand.
Even so, they shouldn’t be getting paid by conflicting sources.
That’s at the heart of the recent dispute about payments made by the Bush administration to a number of commentators and columnists. The public relations industry has dubbed it the “pay for play” scandal, and it has condemned it.
You’ve all read about it; it’s been in all the newspapers. Various federal agencies paid money to several opinion writers and commentators, possibly to promote Bush administration policies. There’s some question whether they became advocates after receiving the money or if they previously were convinced and just picked up the extra bucks for – well, what, “consulting”?
The biggest payment – at this writing, anyway – was to a public relations and consulting firm owned by conservative commentator Armstrong Williams. It got $240,000 to promote the “no child left behind” initiative.
On the face of it, it’s so blatantly unethical that it’s difficult to know what to say about it.
But here are a few things the SPJ Code of Ethics says: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” “Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”
The Public Relations Society of America also frowns on this sort of thing. A PRSA official told me arrangements like this damage the credibility of the business. And PRSA’s code of ethics, updated in 2000, cites as an example of “improper conduct” giving an expensive product to a columnist “to influence the columnist to write favorable articles about the product.”
But it’s more than the money. Let’s face it. Journalists, especially the rich and famous ones, often accept – nay, demand – honorariums for giving speeches. Sometimes they speak to groups that spend money to advocate positions that the famous journalists may be called upon to cover.
Even only modestly renowned journalists on occasion will accept payment of their expenses if they go somewhere to give advice or a piece of their minds.
This sort of thing is well known to officers of SPJ. They travel a lot. People invite them to speak and schmooze. Sometimes their employers pay expenses; sometimes SPJ pays; but sometimes, too, a sponsoring organization – even if it’s as innocent as a local SPJ chapter – will pay expenses.
So what’s right? When do you cross the line?
Like most matters ethical, it’s a matter of degree. Let’s consider some of the possibilities, from the most austere to the most profligate. And let’s categorize them according to a system made familiar by those generous benefactors in the Bush administration: color-coded terrorism alerts. We’ll replace “attack” with “conflict of interest.”
Green alert: Low risk of conflict of interest. In fact, you can make it no risk. Don’t accept any invitations from anyone, because even if you don’t cover the organization now or ever mention it in a news story, you might have to sometime in the future. Of course, you risk getting a reputation for snooty arrogance, but maybe you can live with that.
Blue alert: “Guarded” risk of conflict of interest. Yes, you can accept an invitation to speak to a group, even if it’s on a topic you cover. (After all, you’re unlikely to be invited if your hosts never heard of you.) But make it clear you will speak your mind. And don’t accept any payment. This is one of those areas where standards are different for opinion writers and news anchors. They’re often asked, and they often accept.
Yellow alert: Elevated level of conflict. “Significant risk” of soiling your reputation. This is where you travel afar to speak to a group with a keen interest in something you cover, and they pay your expenses, and possibly an honorarium. Just remember to keep your objectivity, and don’t get greedy with the honorarium. But don’t expect to avoid criticism.
Orange alert: High risk of displaying conflicts of interest and damaging your reputation. Or maybe not. Unfortunately, again, it depends on who you are. There seem to be different standards for journalists who already are making large sums of money to be pundits, or stars. Sometimes they get big honorariums, tens of thousands of dollars, but continue to live in high cotton and high regard.
Red alert: Severe risk of losing your reputation and having to look for work elsewhere. Do what Armstrong Williams and the others did. Accept payment, don’t disclose it (at least, not until someone raises a stink), and say you didn’t realize it was wrong. Or else you could just take a job with the people that created your conflict of interest. After all, your first loyalty seems to be to them, anyway – not to the media outlet you work for, or to the public.