Well, the conservative commentator is on the Right side, ideologically. And he is on “The Right Side …” produced for both radio and television. But Williams, a former aide to Clarence Thomas and Strom Thurmond, is not on the right side of the ethical line. He blundered badly when he accepted $240,000 in tax money from the U.S. Department of Education to promote the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” policy to black families via his media appearances.
The deal, which USA Today exposed on Friday after using the Freedom of Information Act to jar loose the requisite documents, obligated Williams to mention the act frequently on his broadcasts and periodically to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige. He also sought to persuade other black journalists to promote No Child Left Behind, a cause that Williams told the newspaper he wanted to tout because “it’s something I believe in.”
That may be true, but it is also true that Armstrong Williams was being paid — with our tax money — to espouse the view. Given his various positions, it was unethical for him to solicit or accept such compensation, and it was at least unwise and counterproductive if not illegal for the federal government to offer it.
Let’s break down the ethical and legal questions. First, one might question the ethics charge, arguing that it is not inherently wrong for someone in public life to accept payment from an interested party for espousing a view that one previously and honestly holds. I agree, but context matters. Ethical rules are often about drawing lines, about keeping one’s duties and actions in their correct, separate boxes. There should be clear boundaries between public relations and lobbying on the one hand and opinion journalism on the other. The distinction should be similar to that of movie publicist and movie critic, or salesman and consumer reporter.
In those cases, how is the distinction maintained? By tools such as disclosure, clear lines of independent authority and accountability, and financial diversification. While critics might work for newspapers or magazines that derive significant advertising revenues from Hollywood or from manufacturers of products they review, the likelihood that monetary concerns will influence their judgment and credibility is lessened by the fact that their compensation is at least formally unrelated to the preferences or economic successes of particular advertisers. Does some corruption occur in such situations anyway? Yes. Reality is messy and human beings are prone to temptation. But by insisting on ethical boundaries, we reduce corruption and increase public confidence in what they are reading, hearing, and seeing (the latter helping to explain why it is in the long-term self-interest of industries to develop and respect ethical codes in the face of short-term temptations to do otherwise).
In the case of a broadcast commentator or newspaper writer (Williams has been a syndicated columnist with Tribune Media Services), the absence of an ethical bar to direct, undisclosed compensation by an interested party would subject the pundit to severe credibility problems.
Audience members might reasonably question whether the pundit’s opinion is being honestly expressed or is simply reflects the view of the highest bidder. What’s worse, they might reasonably question the credibility of other broadcasters or columnists working for the same media organization, as unfair or debilitating as that may be.
As Tribune Media put it when announcing that Williams’ column would be discontinued, “Accepting compensation in any form from an entity that serves as a subject of his weekly newspaper columns creates, at the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest,” prompting readers to ask whether his opinions “have been purchased by a third party.”
There can be a reasonable exception to this rule, particularly given the part-time nature of many individuals’ participation in the news and opinion media. If you have in the past had a financial relationship (or a personal one, obviously) with some individual or institution but find it impossible not to comment on an issue or controversy having to do with the individual or institution, you need to disclose the relationship before offering your opinion. The audience can decide whether to discount your opinion accordingly, but at least they won’t discover the information later and come to the conclusion that you’ve tried to put something over on them.
Now, for all my talk about ethical boxes and clear dividing lines, I also admit that today’s media universe features some difficult-to-categorize hybrids. They include university professors who conduct research for clients while also offering their informed opinions to politicians or the media, and, closer to home, the role of the public-policy think tank. Consider the John Locke Foundation as a case study.
I head up a private, nonprofit think tank that pays its bills by asking individuals, corporations, and philanthropic foundations to support us if they believe in our work. While most of our resulting revenue comes from those who either value the role of public policy debate in general or share our specific philosophy of government — that it should be limited, economical, innovative, open, and respectful of personal freedom and responsibility — others likely support our work because they believe it is consistent with their own interests or those of their industry.
So when JLF conducts research or holds a policy forum, when its analysts testify before committees or offer opinions to the news media — or, more to the point, when I write my syndicated column or opine on “N.C. Spin” or “Carolina Journal Radio” — are we subject to the same potential credibility problem? It would be easy to respond with, “of course not, because everyone knows my opinions are heart-felt and can’t be bought.” But that is an insufficient response. Multiply this situation by the large and increasing number of public policy institutes, of all ideological persuasions, in Washington and the various states, and you have the potential for lots of ethical quandaries.
I don’t think the proper corrective would be for the advertiser-driven news media to avoid using think tankers as commentators. That would impoverish the public debate. A better remedy is the one that JLF and most other such groups have already adopted: articulate a set of ethical rules.
First, we state clearly our organizing principles and methods of analysis so there is no pretense about where we are coming from. Second, we make clear that all opinions expressed by our staffers, adjuncts, and contributing writers are their own views, not necessarily those of JLF (one reason for this is that, even coming at public policy issues from a set of shared basic principles, JLF folks end up disagreeing quite a bit about specific conclusions and applications). Third, we are as open as possible about our sources, analyses, computations, and reasoning.
This reduces the cost for sparring partners and other outsiders to check our premises or facts, improving public accountability. Fourth, we maintain a strict policy about the relationship between donors and JLF. Whether receiving unrestricted grants or funds restricted to a particular program or project, we reserve the right to draw our own conclusions from our work — to write, publish, broadcast, or otherwise disseminate precisely what we wish without any donor having the right, or even the opportunity, to have anything to say about it.
Of course, if donors don