January 26, 2005

where's the scandal?

The Washington Post reports that:

In 2002, syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher repeatedly defended President Bush's push for a $300 million initiative encouraging marriage as a way of strengthening families.

"The Bush marriage initiative would emphasize the importance of marriage to poor couples" and "educate teens on the value of delaying childbearing until marriage," she wrote in National Review Online, for example, adding that this could "carry big payoffs down the road for taxpayers and children."

But Gallagher failed to mention that she had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to help promote the president's proposal.

The recent wave of payoffs to political pundits by campaigns and interest groups has a scandalous flavor, but why?

It isn't as if we expect these openly partisan pundits to present fair and balanced arguments. Does it really matter whether they're collecting checks from the people who benefit the most from their work? Are we really upset because these columnists haven't disclosed these payments? Again, I don't think obviously slanted punditry has to worry about preserving its appearence of impartiality.

The real scandal may be that these political hacks have become so influential. Pressure groups believe that these pundits influence public opinion to such an extent that it's worthwhile to throw them a bunch of cash to keep them from wandering off the reservation.

As the major media conglomerates continue to tear down the walls between their entertainment and news divisions, and corporate profits have made ratings more important than the quality of the news reporting, responsible journalism is less and less able to counter the ravings of political hacks and pundits. More and more of the information we receive about public policy is just ranting for ratings. In this environment, the pundits have more influence over the public's opinion than they would have in the presence of respectable journalism.

That's the real scandal. I don't think the problem is solved when the left pays its own political hacks to provide equally irresponsible blather on the other side. Citizens must still wonder, "where's the beef?" What if all of these clowns are wrong? Responsible reporting can never be completely objective, but it can distinguish itself from punditry. It is more likely to avoid the undignified language that, as Don Herzog points out, can have unintended and undesirable consequences.

So, at the end, I suggest we not get our underwear in a twist about these pundit payoffs. We need to focus instead on the replacement of journalism with punditry, and the continuing influence of corporations over the raw information that we need to sustain healthy political discussions in a democracy.

Posted by Carey at January 26, 2005 09:12 AM

I think the real scandal is that it is very much against federal law for the federal government to *secretly* pay federal tax monies to people for the purpose of expressing an opinion favorable to federal government practice. It's called "covert propaganda" and it has been illegal since the mid-50s.

Posted by: John at January 26, 2005 12:34 PM