Most newspapers pay for the op-eds they publish in their editorial sections. Think tanks are in the business of paying scholars to write op-eds, studies, and books. America’s Future Foundation, the nonprofit that runs this website, has paid writers to provide the content herein. In fact, I was paid by AFF to write this very article.
Does that make those published opinions dishonest?
The reason I bring this up is because of what’s happened to a former colleague of mine, Doug Bandow, who lost a syndicated column and a position at the Cato Institute when it was revealed that he had accepted thousands of dollars from felon lobbyist Jack Abramoff to write op-eds but never mentioned that fact to his readers. In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times (presumably not underwritten by Abramoff’s money this time), Bandow didn’t play victim, but instead raised important questions about what happens when money meets advocacy.
“Who decides whether such a potential conflict [in interest] is sufficiently direct to matter?” Bandow asked. “In 1987, I was paid to help a presidential candidate develop a plan to privatize Social Security. Does that mean I can never have a legitimate opinion on the issue or that politician ever again? And what is an aspiring ideologue to do if he believes something in principle and the person or group willing to offer support to write about it has an economic interest in the outcome?”
The obvious answer is that the aspiring ideologue should be wearing their supporter on their sleeve, or at least in their byline, like I do in mine. But it should also be obvious that the fact that money is exchanged in such a fashion has very little bearing on the honesty of the position held by the author. In other words, it is demanded that writers say who paid them, even though it makes no real difference.
But do people who pay money for opinions really exert no influence on the opinions produced? Should we believe Bandow when he said that Abramoff never dictated to Bandow what his opinion on a topic should be? That instead, Abramoff merely told him, “Look at these issues. If you agree and want to write on them, we’ll help.” Does it ring true to you?
It does to me. You can’t throw a dead cat over your shoulder in Washington, D.C., without hitting someone with strong opinions. Take any issue; there are already scores of people around here who would be more than willing to write an op-ed on the side you want. You don’t need to bribe someone to take a position they wouldn’t otherwise take. Just get a directory of local think tanks and let your fingers do the walking.
It’s the same in my situation. AFF doesn’t pay for my columns because I write whatever they tell me to write about. They pay me because I was already ideologically consistent with its mission, and by paying me they can assure that I provide them with content on a regular basis. Whether my byline mentions that I am an AFF columnist or not wouldn’t change a single word I choose to write.
Fact is, donors overwhelmingly give money to those who are like-minded, not to change minds. When a corporation gives money to a think tank, it’s because the scholars there already believe the things the corporation favors. When donations are made to political candidates, it’s because the politician already shares the donors’ beliefs. The exceptions are few and far between. Most people wouldn’t change their minds for any amount of money.
This doesn’t mean that I think Bandow got a bum deal. In the opinion culture, it is expected that every writer should reveal who pays them, and Bandow failed to do this. But I don’t think his omission had anything to do with the credibility of the arguments he made in the op-eds that Abramoff paid for. Perhaps we’d be better off never mentioning anything-readers should just assume that writers have been paid to write and leave it at that. We could then let the arguments stand for themselves.
James N. Markels is an attorney and a regular columnist for Brainwash.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire