Press Box

The Sullivan Principles

Andrew Sullivan’s three-faced attack on Paul Krugman.

Andrew Sullivan’s serial pummeling of economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman continues. For several days running on his Web site, Sullivan has painted Krugman, who accepted $50,000 from the now-pancaked corporation in 1999 for service on its “advisory committee,” as an Enron shill, hypocrite, and conflict-of-interest miscreant. He writes:

We now need a real investigation, outlining the full roster of pundits, right and left, who have cashed Enron’s checks in the past. We need names and dollars. And we need to demand that they give the money back to the fleeced shareholders.

Never mind that Krugman inoculated himself against Enron conflict-of-interest charges by disclosing his Enron affiliation to his Fortune readers when he wrote about the corporation for that magazine (May 1999) and then took a booster shot in the New York Times when he informed his readers about the connection when he first he wrote about Enron as a Times op-ed columnist (Jan. 24, 2001). And it makes no difference to Sullivan that Krugman has written both positively and negatively about Enron—more the mark of an independent mind than a shill. Or that Krugman ended his Enron affiliation when he joined the Times as a columnist.

In l’affaire Krugman, no exercise in ethical hygiene—short of blood transfusion—would satisfy Sullivan. He seems to want Krugman to declare all conflicts of interests, all appearances of conflict of interest, all potential conflicts of interest, all historically possible conflicts of interests (retroactive for five years), and all imagined conflicts of interest. And if there’s any space left on the Times op-ed page after Krugman’s voluminous disclosures, Sullivan probably expects him to write a column.

How did Andrew Sullivan respond last summer when he was the one charged with conflict of interest? Sullivan, you may remember, was branded by some as a bought-and-paid-for journalist after he accepted a $7,500 sponsorship from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a drug industry trade group. Salonand Inside questioned Sullivan’s editors at the New York TimesMagazine and the New Republic about the ethics of allowing him to continue reporting on the drug industry while accepting its money. (The HIV-positive Sullivan had previously saluted the drug industry for keeping him alive in Times and NewRepublic pieces.)

Sullivan’s immediate defense was disclosure: He announced the sponsor relationship in a New York Times news story; he disclosed the sponsorship on his site; he included a prominent link to PhRMA’s home page. He did everything short of tattooing the organization’s logo on his forehead.

Defiant and furious, Sullivan repelled the ethicists’ complaints, writing:

[I]t behooves me to say I see absolutely no problems with [accepting the sponsorship]. … The sponsorship is pretty minor. We hope to attract others. If people believe that my convictions on this matter over several years were designed to elicit a small donation to this site in the distant future, they’re welcome to believe it. But it’s paranoid hooey. In part, of course, the real worry of those who want to attack the free market in pharmaceuticals is that I might have been a teensy bit effective in my arguments—and that these arguments might even have some merit. The usual suspects want to silence opposition. They won’t.

If the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function is the test of a first-rate mind, then Sullivan is a genius. When Sullivan was in the conflict-of-interest crossfire, he believed that disclosure was purgative enough. Only paranoids or political foes could sink so low as to question his integrity. But today, with Krugman in the crossfire, Sullivan mimics the paranoid and partisan techniques he accused his foes of using last summer. Never mind Krugman’s multiple disclosures: He’s hopelessly corrupt.

At the risk of describing Sullivan as somebody who can hold three opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still function, I must tell you what Sullivan did several days after he drew a principled line in the sand about the pharmaceutical money. He gave it back! He wrote, “I don’t want to have every argument I make about the importance of pharmaceutical research to be undermined by the lie that I have been bought and paid for.”

I’ll concede that Sullivan’s and Krugman’s adventures in conflict of interest aren’t totally analogous. PhRMA offered Sullivan’s Web site a $7,500 sponsorship as a kind of reward because it agreed with his views and wanted to help advance them. (And as long as Sullivan practices opinion journalism and agrees to disclose his backers, I see no problem with taking the money.)

In Krugman’s case, Enron paid him $50,000 not as a reward but, we assume, as some sort of future investment. Not unlike their investments in the two presidential candidates, hundreds of members of Congress, and a yet undetermined number of pundits. (Dude, where’s my Enron money?) But the key similarity here is that when the relationships became relevant, both Sullivan and Krugman disclosed them. (For Krugman’s side of the story, click here.)

These are the Sullivan Principles: First, you must do as I say! Then, you must do as I did! Finally, do as I did after I thought about it and wanted it both ways!

Sorry, you got it right the first time, Andrew.

(Interest declared: For almost three and a half years, Paul Krugman  wrote an economics column for Slate. I won’t divulge the total we paid him for those 46 pieces—even if subjected to Sullivan’s Web pillory.)