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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Writers’ Ethics

Air Date: Week of January 20, 2006

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Several prominent opinion writers have recently lost their syndicated contracts because it was revealed by BusinessWeek Online that the writers had previously undisclosed financial arrangements with companies who paid them to write about a particular story or viewpoint. Eamon Javers, the Capitol Hill correspondent for Business Week who broke the story, talks with host Steve Curwood about why and how this breach of journalistic ethics seems to be happening.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. The scandals around influence peddling in Washington may end up sullying a lot of politicians’ reputations, but they’ve also had an effect on several prominent opinion writers.

A recent series of articles in BusinessWeek Online point out previously undisclosed financial arrangements between several columnists and the special interests who paid them to write about a particular story or viewpoint.

This is a matter of ethical concern, but it also raises the question of whether harm might be done in cases where people’s health or the environment is at risk. Joining me is Eamon Javers the Capitol Hill correspondent for Business Week who broke the story. Eaman, thanks for coming on Living on Earth.

JAVERS: Thank you.

CURWOOD: You’ve been working on quite a few stories recently about writers getting themselves into sticky ethical situations. Briefly tell me about the case involving Mr. Fumento.

JAVERS: Michael Fumento is a columnist, author, think tank scholar here in Washington, DC, at the Hudson Institute. And what we’ve reported on Business Week Online was that Mr. Fumento, who had written a book in 2003 called “BioEvolution,” which talked very favorably about the biotech and agribusiness industries, had actually been paid $60,000 by the agribusiness giant company Monsanto to write that book.

CURWOOD: What prompted you to do the research and write this story?

JAVERS: Well, I’d been on the Jack Abramoff beat here in Washington, the ongoing scandal about lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and one of Abramoff’s former associates told me that they had, as sort of part of their arsenal of tools, regularly used to pay columnists to write favorably about Abramoff’s clients. And the two columnists that we talked about in an earlier story on Business Week Online were Doug Bandow, of the Cato Institute and the Copley News Service, and a guy named Peter Ferrara, of the Institute for Policy Innovation, both of whom took money over a long period of time, $1,000 or $2,000 a pop, to write pieces about Mr. Abramoff’s clients.

CURWOOD: So what’s going on here?

JAVERS: (Laughs) I can give you a couple thoughts. I mean, the first is that a lot of the people – all of the three people we’ve talked about here so far – work at think tanks, and think tank people seem to, as a matter of course, have to wear a number of different hats. And a lot of pressure is put on them to do fundraising and to bring in revenue. So they’re also syndicated columnists, in the case of both Mr. Bandow and Mr. Fumento. Bandow worked for Copley News Service, which severed its relationship with him after we asked them questions about this situation.

And so you see that there are people who are not coming from a journalism background who are writing opinion columns, and who in fact have a lot of different financial sources of support. And unwinding that can be pretty complicated.

CURWOOD: By the way, for the record, I understand that none of the gentlemen we’ve talked about so far disagrees with your story that, in fact, they had a financial relationship with the folks that you say they have.

JAVERS: No. The basic facts are undisputed here. I think if you talk to them, all three of the people that we’ve mentioned would say that the money did not change their opinions, that they had held whatever opinion they were writing for a number of years.

CURWOOD: We did speak to Mr. Fumento and he asked us to ask you if you think there’s some sort of a statute of limitations on listing where money comes from, and, if so, what it is. Is it five years, is it ten years?

JAVERS: Well, that’s a fair question, and I don’t think it’s for us to decide that. I mean, we asked this question of his syndicate, Scripps Howard, whether he had disclosed the fact that he had been on the payroll at Monsanto, and whether that made any difference to them. And in fact it did, because he hadn’t disclosed those payments, at least to them, and it would have been up to them to decide whether or not (a), to run his columns that talked favorably about Monsanto, or (b), to run them with some sort of disclaimer to point out that the $60,000 that Fumento got in 1999 he says was to support the writing of that book, “BioEvolution.” And when you pick up a copy of that book, as I did at a bookstore around the corner from my office here in DC, there is no disclosure in that book that Monsanto paid for it to be written. It talks favorably about Monsanto in a number of different places.

CURWOOD: So in your view, or, is it your understanding that, really, all such payments should be disclosed?

JAVERS: Well I think that’s the standard that the syndicates have. And when you’re talking about opinion columnists, you’re talking about sort of a hybrid breed of person. These people are not journalists, they’re not reporters. This is not a journalism problem, it’s maybe more a media problem, in that these people are paid to offer their opinions; I’m not, I’m paid to offer facts. I think there’s a big distinction there.

CURWOOD: Now, how much do you think the behavior of companies has changed over time? Are companies being more savvy about reaching out and placing strategic dollars with opinion-makers to help them with their campaigns than they were in the past?

JAVERS: Well I think both lobbying and corporate America generally have gotten more aggressive when it comes to public opinion. The old school of lobbying was you hired a well-connected lobbyist in Washington, he would go up to Capitol Hill and button-hole a senator and ask him to slip a loophole into a bill for you.

What’s changed is that now lobbyists are really mounting very aggressive PR and public-image campaigns out in the rest of the country through the media, through grassroots organizations, and creating public pressure for a particular kind of change that the client wants. Those are very elaborate and sophisticated efforts, and they will depend much more heavily on opinion columnists and people who can really move public opinion. So suddenly those columnists have a dollar value attached to their product that maybe wasn’t there in an era where they weren’t needed by these lobbyists.

CURWOOD: Eamon Javers is the Capitol Hill correspondent for BusinessWeek Online. Thanks so much for joining me.

JAVERS: Hey, thank you.

 

 

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