Abramoff Bought Cato Columnist Doug Bandow

Business Week reports that Doug Bandow resigned from the Cato Institute yesterday after it was discovered that he was being paid substantial sums by lobbyist Jack Abramoff to write columns favorable to Abramoff’s clients.

A senior fellow at the Cato Institute resigned from the libertarian think tank on Dec. 15 after admitting that he had accepted payments from indicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff for writing op-ed articles favorable to the positions of some of Abramoff’s clients. Doug Bandow, who writes a syndicated column for Copley News Service, told BusinessWeek Online that he had accepted money from Abramoff for writing between 12 and 24 articles over a period of years, beginning in the mid ’90s.

[…]

A former Abramoff associate says Bandow and at least one other think-tank expert were typically paid $2,000 per column to address specific topics of interest to Abramoff’s clients. Bandow’s standing as a columnist and think-tank analyst provided a seemingly independent validation of the arguments the Abramoff team were using to try to sway Congressional action.

Bandow confirms that he received $2,000 for some pieces, but says it was “usually less than that amount.” He says he wrote all the pieces himself, though with topics and information provided by Abramoff. He adds that he wouldn’t write about subjects that didn’t interest him.

[…]

A review of Bandow’s columns and other written work shows that he wrote favorably about Abramoff’s Indian tribal clients — as well as another Abramoff client, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands — as far back as 1997. One column, syndicated by the Copley News Service, saluted one Abramoff client tribe, the Mississippi Choctaws, for their entrepreneurial spirit, hard work, and commitment to free enterprise. “The Choctaws offer a model for other tribes,” Bandow wrote.

Bandow wrote a column earlier this year — well after the disclosure that Abramoff was under federal investigation — saying that wealthy Indian tribes had become yet another “well-funded special interest seeking political favors.” In response to BusinessWeek Online’s inquiry, Bandow said his views of Indian gambling have shifted over the years. “It’s gone well beyond what it once was,” he said.

In none of Bandow’s op-eds were any Abramoff payments disclosed, however, nor were they disclosed to the Cato Institute. A spokesperson for the Copley News Service was not available for comment at press time.

For years, rumors have swirled of an underground opinion “pay-for-play” industry in Washington in which think-tank employees and pundits trade their ability to shape public perception for cash.

I don’t know how prevalent the practice is but it is certainly outrageous.

Had Bandow at least disclosed the payments, one could argue that his columns otherwise stand on their own merits. That someone has a financial incentive to promote a viewpoint does not necessarily render the arguments used in advocating that viewpoint invalid. It does, however, naturally lead the reader to be skeptical that perhaps they are not being told the whole truth.

Hiding the Abramoff affiliation, however, is inexcusable. It is a matter of basic ethics for a journalist, even an opinion columnist, to disclose financial conflicts of interest.

Update: Matt Yglesias is less sure:

The Abramoff angle gives this a certain sex appeal, but Bandow’s almost certainly not the only one who has or has had this kind of deal with someone or other. Nor is the line between appropriate and non-appropriate punditry-financing relationships entirely clear, though some things pretty definitively fall on the non-appropriate side of the line.

One would think this case does, no?

Update 2: Jonah Goldberg agrees with me: “My view of journalistic ethics has always been basic common sense. If you take money from someone to do something, say so and let the reader decide.”

Ditto Betsy Newmark.

Steve Clemons, who is admittedly a friend of Bandow’s, thinks this no worse than think tank staffers being constrained by the ideology of their institutions.

Josh Marshall also thinks “OpEd payola” is rampant.

Garance Franke-Ruta agrees, adding,

These revelations are, unfortunately, only the tip of the iceberg — not just with regard to Abramoff and his advocacy on behalf of his clients, but in terms of the overall number of op-ed columns that are paid advocacy on behalf of stealth clients. It is impossible to know how large that number is — and how much of our current opinion conversation is really just the public jousting of paid advocates — without stricter op-ed page disclosure policies. Without such disclosure policies, readers may be left with an erroneous impression that certain positions have been adopted, on the merits, by a range of like-minded and thoughtful people, when in reality the writers in question have just been acting as public relations agents.

The only way newspapers are ever going to be able to assure that their readers know which opinions are paid advocacy is if they adopt strict disclosure policies for all external writers.

I suspect more specific revelations will be forthcoming.

Update 3: A very knowledgable source emails that “Op-ed payola is literally SOP for public relations/public affairs. I don’t disagree with your conclusion, but not even Josh Marshall’s post does justice to how rampant it is.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Davod says:

    I hope this is the first of many journalistic revelations.

  2. Anderson says:

    Well, anyone who wants to buy my commenting skills knows where to find me.

  3. oldtom says:

    After the stories of NIH scientists being retained/compensated by drug co.’s and college profs submitting op eds that they didn’t write, I’ve presumed that most pundits or “authorities” were being paid by someone with a dog in the fight.

    Disclosure would be best, but if there’s no fig leaf, why would K Street pay?

  4. John Cole says:

    Someone convene a blogger ethics panel.

  5. Well, I used to write op-eds for others’ bylines all the time when I was on the Army staff. My writing appeared under the names of officials from the SecArmy on down.

    Man, I could have been free-lancing this kind of work? Dang, wish I’d known!

  6. James Joyner says:

    Don: Yep, I always knew that went on. I always presumed that if the author was a general/flag officer, a cabinet secretary, or higher it was unlikely to have actually been penned by them. Presidents don’t write their own speeches, either.

    But that’s really something different–essentially writing a report for the boss. And the boss isn’t really taking credit for his skill with words, just conveying the message he wanted.

    In these cases, though, the reader gets the impression that some syndicated columnist or think tank expert has come to an honest conclusion. The “boss” in this case is not just buying wordsmithing and technical expertise but the cloak of someone else’s reputation. It apparently is common practice but one that just feels wrong.