Columnists Debate Ethics of Accepting Federal Funds to Promote Policies
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KWAME HOLMAN: Yesterday, nationally syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher confirmed she was paid more than $21,000 to advise the Department of Health and Human Services on promoting marriage.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Marriage cannot be severed from its cultural, religious and natural roots.
KWAME HOLMAN: She later praised President Bush’s $300 million marriage initiative, run by that federal department.
In the National Review Online, Gallagher said the initiative, which opposes same-sex marriage, could “carry big payoffs down the road for taxpayers and children.”
Gallagher is the author of three books on marriage, and president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy. On the NewsHour she said Democrats’ support of same- sex marriage hurts them.
MAGGIE GALLAGHER: I’ll tell you it spells real trouble for the Democratic Party from all the polls that we show, show that Republicans are united and this splits the Democratic base because marriage is not an ideological issue.
Most people think that marriage is between a man and a woman; that children need mothers and fathers, and it’s perfectly rational for the state to prefer marriage.
KWAME HOLMAN: After press inquiries about her contract with the Health and Human Services Department, Gallagher on Tuesday wrote: “I should have disclosed a government contract when I later wrote about the Bush Initiative. I would have if I had remembered it. My apologies to my readers.”
Earlier this month, it was revealed that conservative commentator Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 by the Department of Education to tout the president’s No Child Left Behind initiative.
Williams, a frequent guest on cable news programs praised the plan in columns targeted at African-Americans and distributed by Tribune Media Services, which since has dropped Williams as a columnist.
President Bush was asked about the issue at his news conference yesterday.
REPORTER: Mr. President, do you think it’s a proper use of government funds to pay commentators to promote your policies?
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: No.
REPORTER: Are you ordering that there be an end to that practice?
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes, I am. I expect my cabinet secretaries to make sure that that practice doesn’t go forward. There needs to be independence and Mr. Armstrong Williams admitted he made a mistake.
And we didn’t know about this in the White House and there needs to be a nice, independent relationship between the White House and the press, the administration and the press.
KWAME HOLMAN: House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has condemned government payments to commentators as “illegal” and “covert propaganda.” Yesterday congressional Democrats noted the administration spent more than $88 million last year on contracts with outside public affairs consultants and asked the Government Accountability Office to review the payments.
And senators for from both sides of the aisle have called for an examination of consultant spending at the Education Department. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission has undertaken its own investigation after what it said were thousands of complaints about government payments to commentators.
GWEN IFILL: And joining me now are: Maggie Gallagher, syndicated columnist and president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy; Tony Blankley, columnist and editorial page editor at the Washington Times; and Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Maggie Gallagher, you apologized to your readers. What would you say today that you did wrong and what didn’t you do wrong?
MAGGIE GALLAGHER: Gwen, thank you. I don’t agree with the introduction that you just made.
It’s not true that I was paid to advise the Bush administration or to promote Bush marriage policies.
I’m a marriage expert. I’ve spent 20 years on research and public education on marriage. And three years ago HHS approached me and said, we don’t have anyone with expertise on the marriage issue, and particularly on the social science evidence on marriage, would you produce some specific products for us? Would you write some, would you draft some brochures; would you draft an essay for Wade Horn gathering the evidence on marriage education; would you come down to Washington and speak to regional HHS managers, reviewing the social science evidence and how marriage matters.
And I said yes. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t think HHS did anything wrong. It’s just not unusual for experts to be asked to do work for the government in their fields of expertise.
GWEN IFILL: Just to be clear -
MAGGIE GALLAGHER: Let me -
GWEN IFILL: Go ahead -
MAGGIE GALLAGHER: — Gwen, you know, this has been retailed in so many newspapers and in The New York Times and The Washington Post.
And the, you know, when Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post called me up, he did not ask me what he later published. He did not say, ‘Maggie, I’m going to write a story that says you took money from the Bush administration to promote marriage policies. What’s your response to that?’ which I think was a minimal responsibility. Instead he called me up and said, Maggie, do you think you should have disclosed you had a government contract to do perfectly legitimate work when you later wrote columns, as I’ve been going for 20 years, on the importance of marriage, including some that support the Bush marriage initiative.
And I got off the phone; I spent ten minutes and I said, you know what, if anyone had said to me, Maggie, do you think you should mention that you’ve done some work for HHS and the marriage issue?, I would have said, sure, I have nothing to hide. I have no intention and motive to hide. I think it’s true that I should have disclosed it.
But what we have now is a national coverage in which my name — you know, I’m not rich, I’m not that famous — all I have is my reputation.
And my name is, you know, in dozens of newspaper articles, in national nightly news reports, it’s being reported — a completely false charge, which is that I took money from the Bush administration to promote its marriage policies. It’s not true.
GWEN IFILL: To be clear, all I was saying is that’s not what we reported just now. We were very careful with our language. But I do want to ask you what you consider yourself to be. You seem to make a distinction between considering your columnist’s role — you’re not a journalist, I gather, you think — rather than your adviser’s role. Which is it?
MAGGIE GALLAGHER: No. Let me put it this way: I’m an opinion journalist to the extent that I’ve written a syndicated column for ten years, and sometimes I write magazine articles. I’m not asking for an exemption from any standards of truth or fairness with regard to being an opinion journalist.
But 90 percent of my work and my time have been in think tanks in the nonprofit world for most of that 20 years. And most of my time is spent on research in public education on marriage.
So many people know me as a syndicated columnist and that’s not untrue. I’m not saying I’m not an opinion journalist. That’s one of the things I am.
But what some people don’t know is that, you know, I’ve written two books on marriage. I write for scholarly articles on marriage. I attend academic conferences on marriage. You know, in my own mind, and actually I would say even The New York Times would concede it in its newspaper coverage today that one of the things I am is a marriage expert in the same way that someone like Gary Wills is a historian and he also does a syndicated column. I’m not… I think that both of those things are true.
But when I worked for HHS, I was hired as an expert on marriage to do work in my field of expertise, and there is nothing unethical or shady or questionable about that.
If the question is, should you have disclosed it, yeah, I wish I had. I think it was a mistake and I think I should do it again. But that’s — there’s not a national story about how Maggie Gallagher should have disclosed in a technical infraction of journalistic rules.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. What I’m trying to…
MAGGIE GALLAGHER: I’ll say one more sentence and then I’ll pause.
The story people want to write is the Bush administration is buying journalists, and people are running roughshod over my reputation in order to make that story.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. Tony Blankley, let’s address that last point that Maggie Gallagher made, that the Bush administration at the very least is blurring the lines between what journalists are supposed to do and what partisans are supposed to do. Is that true and it is common?
TONY BLANKLEY: To my knowledge, it’s certainly not common. I’m not sure I’d say the Bush administration. All I know so far from the public record, and I don’t know anything else, is that Armstrong Williams on a contract from the Department of Education boldly crossed a clear line and did what he shouldn’t do and they shouldn’t have done it.
They paid him to express the government’s opinion when he was acting as a journalist. That’s absolutely forbidden. I don’t know of any other cases of that. I hope there aren’t any. What Ms. Gallagher describes herself doing is, in fact, the opposite; the government paid her for her to tell them her opinion, which they published at least internally in the department under their name.
I don’t see that there’s any comparison between what she did, which to me is… I mean, this town is filled, The New York Times is filled with academics and think tank people who have contracts with the government and do columns. I mean, in other words, she’s not flying under a false flag.
I don’t even know why she would want to feel the need to reveal it because when you reveal something, it suggests there is an implied impropriety. I don’t see the impropriety there. On the other hand, with Armstrong William, it’s unambiguously wrong.
GWEN IFILL: Tom Rosenstiel, as you know, this does speak to a larger issue in the journalism industry, and that is this whole blurring of lines. Is there a sense of… a lot of people who don’t do this for a living don’t understand there are even rules or there is a line, or there are lines as Tony Blankley is suggesting, that should be and shouldn’t be crossed. It’s very confusing. What are the lines?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, I think lines are actually pretty intuitive. And I think what the audience does actually presume these lines.
If a government spokesman comes out and endorses a Bush policy, the audience says to themselves, well, what do you expect, that’s this person’s job.
When a commentator, someone who’s — the Chiron under their name says syndicated columnist, there’s a presumption they arrived at this conclusion independently, that it’s their own opinion about things. That’s why an independent… that’s why a syndicated columnist or a so-called expert has more credibility in the public’s mind because the audience doesn’t say, well, of course, what else do you expect them to say?
That is the line that journalists are walking. They are supposed to be independent of the people that cover it. It’s not appropriate by any canon of journalism that’s modern for someone to help write the speech and then praise it or comment on it.
GWEN IFILL: Let me just run quickly through with you, Tom, because you study the stuff, a couple examples of these breaches.
Is it acceptable to take money for writing what you believe anyway?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: You’ve got to disclose it as a minimum, but it’s not really… you’re sort of broaching a journalistic line if you take money from people simply because you agree with them.
GWEN IFILL: Maggie Gallagher, you want to get in –
MAGGIE GALLAGHER: Well, no, I agree. I think it’s completely wrong to take money for an opinion even if you agree with it. I don’t want to be defended along the lines that I… first of all, I have no first-hand knowledge of Armstrong William, but if the argument is ‘I took money for things I already believe and that’s okay’ — no, that’s wrong.
You can say no worse thing about me than that somebody paid me to produce an opinion. I do not want to be defended on that line. The difference is that I was paid… I’m a writer. I’m a researcher. I get paid for writing and research. The government paid me to do writing and research in my field of expertise because they needed that expertise.
And there’s nothing unusual about this. I would guarantee you that if you go back and look at The New York Times and The Washington Post right now that academics who publish columns in those newspapers, have received government funding to do work in their fields of expertise. And nobody, this is an entirely new idea, that there is something ethically challenged about that.
GWEN IFILL: You’re doing a perfectly good job of defending yourself on that. But I do want get back to the other guests a little bit. Tony, are there other so-called breaches? Is it across the line to contribute to a president’s speech and comment on it on the air?
TONY BLANKLEY: I don’t know if you’re talking about Krauthammer (and Kristol) case…
GWEN IFILL: For our viewers, it’s two well-known columnists who went to the White House and as far as we know took part in a pre-inaugural speech session.
TONY BLANKLEY: I don’t know what happened. I know when I worked in the Reagan White House, we called in experts. I did some speech writing there. We called everyone from Milton Freedman to debrief us on their views of things. We took some of that information. We didn’t take others. They didn’t help write the speech. They briefed us as experts.
Someone like Krauthammer, who is one of the premier journalists of his generation, has a huge body of public writing on the question of the Middle East, and I assume, but I don’t know what the facts, are that he was brought in to help them understand the substance of it. Then he went out.
Funnily, when I was doing commentary on the speech after the inaugural, and I got text at 11:30, as I was reading it, my first thought was, the neo-cons are going to be happy with this one because it was obvious that…
GWEN IFILL: Whether they had a role in it or not?
TONY BLANKLEY: Whether they had a role or not, obviously they had a great triumph in that speech. I didn’t specifically give it to anyone in particular. But it was obvious that the president, who has already had that position, was confirming that his support of that theory. I don’t see how going in and sharing your thoughts with the president, assuming you weren’t crafting the speech… if he was crafting the speech.
GWEN IFILL: Which we do not know.
TONY BLANKLEY: — then you have to say I helped craft the speech. If you’re just a giving advice — I get calls from congressmen and senators call me up and say, that was interesting, how would you apply that in this or that situation? No one pays me. I just express my opinion.
GWEN IFILL: Tom, the administration, it was revealed today, has spent $88 million in the fiscal year 2004 on public relations initiatives, contracts with PR firms.
How much of this is a question about what the media or members of the media or depending on how loosely you define that may be doing inappropriately and what the administration may be doing inappropriately?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well I think — as Maggie suggested, that’s one of the questions that’s motivating the press here.
The Armstrong Williams case was so far over any line anybody would accept that that’s prompted journalists to say, well, what else is going on.
This wasn’t… the Williams case wasn’t the first instance. We have the video news releases that were discovered a couple years ago which the GAO has ruled were illegal, that the Bush administration sent out. The press is now trying to find out, has the Bush administration tried to buy the credibility of conservative journalists in town to promote their policies? That’s a perfectly legitimate area of inquiry. And I think public wants to know the answer to.
There is the presumption not of neutrality on the part of the American press necessarily, particularly opinion journalists, but there is an implied presumption of independence. If that independence has been broached, and bribing or paying people to comment on things is the clearest way of doing that, that’s something we need to know.
GWEN IFILL: Tom Rosenstiel, Tony Blankley, Maggie Gallagher, thank you all very much.