Pundit Payola

Money talks. It writes, too.

Opinions for sale

If I were just a tad more pretentious, I would call this an article—wait, make that an essay—about the commodification of opinion. It came out last week that a couple of conservative pundits have been on the take from lobbyist extraordinaire Jack Abramoff. He would pay them up to $2,000 for columns and op-ed pieces that advanced the interests of his clients. This is on top of the $3.95 or so these writers collected from the newspapers themselves.

How embarrassing: opinions for sale, like cheeseburgers. Can I supersize that tax break I’m advocating for you, sir? You can buy a pundit for even less than it costs to buy a politician.

In retrospect, there were clues. For Washington policy nerds, a passionate interest in developments among the Choctaw Indians does not arise naturally. And like that old joke about Henny Youngman’s eulogy for Jack Benny’s cat (punchline: You wouldn’t believe what that cat had done for the State of Israel), it is remarkable how the wisdom of so many conservative shibboleths can be demonstrated by looking at the government of the Northern Mariana Islands.

But let’s be a bit careful here. As I noted in my recent address to the National Association of Pundits and Allied Trades, many of us sell our opinions for a living. That living is under unparalelled threat from the Internet, where opinions of all sorts and degrees of ferocity are available for free. At such a moment, should we cavalierly reject this new revenue source?

And even though casting stones is very close to a pundit’s job definition, are we necessarily without sin? Sure, we like to think that what we’re selling is the expression of our opinions, and that our opinions themselves are not for sale. But the two miscreants exposed so far can make the same claim. Doug Bandow and Peter Ferrara are both principled conservatives. Bandow is one of those amiably grumpy, furry libertarians who dreams of privatizing the stoplights. Ferrara has spent his whole adult life pursuing one such fanatical notion—privatizing Social Security. A few months ago he seemed to be about to enter the promised land. Now he faces the more likely prospect of another 40 years wandering in the desert. As far as we know, neither Bandow nor Ferrara has published a single word that he actually disagrees with.

But there’s a difference between being paid for the right to publish your work and being paid because someone else has published your work. What Abramoff was buying for clients was partly access to media real estate (op-ed pages) that he couldn’t commandeer himself and partly the endorsement of conservative pundits who didn’t necessarily disagree with the positions they took but probably would not have bothered except for the cash.

Still, Pundit Payola is only a tiny step beyond what has become common practice in Washington. Bandow and Ferrara were both associated with Washington “think tanks.” Bandow was a “senior fellow” at the CATO Institute, a close-to-genuine scholarly institution, though with an explicit ideological ax to grind (libertarian). Ferrara remains unapologetically as a “senior policy adviser” at something called the Institute for Policy Innovation, which seems to be a more typical lobbying shop with academic decorations. On the Web, its alleged scholars are listed with links to their op-ed pieces. Nothing about books. Ferrara actually has written several books, although mainly he’s written one book (about Social Security privatization) several times.

The deals at these think tanks vary. Sometimes they pay you. More often, you might get an office, all the coffee and staples you need, the right to call yourself a “fellow,” and maybe a young researcher who is working for free anyway because she is getting course credit at some university. The think tank gets mentioned in your ID whenever you publish an opinion piece somewhere—and that had better be often, or you’re out on the street. The think tank, founded for some ideological purpose, may bend a bit to accommodate the views of big contributors. And hirelings, if they don’t actually change their views in order to snag this cushy perch, know that they had better not change their views if they want to keep it.

In recent months, we have learned that the Bush administration sees nothing wrong with paying for pro-American articles to be planted in Iraqi newspapers. Some have criticized this practice as an unhelpful lesson in how to run a democracy. But the administration has done the same thing, more or less, here at home, giving a fat grant to multimedia black conservative Armstrong Williams for pushing administration policy on his TV show, in his newspaper column, and so on. And now it seems that a figure somewhat more influential than the president among the nation’s legislators—Jack Abramoff—has been doing the same thing.

It’s disappointing that the CATO Institute lacks the brio to defend all this as the free market at work. We talk grandly about the “marketplace of ideas.” Why should that marketplace, unlike all others, ban money? Won’t Adam Smith’s famous invisible hand guarantee a good result?

Liberals, meanwhile, don’t seem to trust the power of their own ideas to win without cheating any more than conservatives do. In Los Angeles, liberals have organized an infantile protest over changes in the L.A. Times’ op-ed page, urging subscribers to renew for just three months and await further instructions about whether the paper has used that time satisfactorily to expunge itself of deviationism.

As it happens, I was bounced a few months ago from the job of running the L.A. Times opinion pages. So, I am enjoying the fuss from afar. But it’s still ridiculous. The premise is that op-ed columns and other opinion pieces are not exercises in persuasion but simple counters: If you have more of them, you win. There is no room for the notion that reading something you disagree with might change your mind, or simply be more enjoyable than repeated ratifying of what you already believe.

So, opinions are merely counters, and those counters are for sale. That’s what I mean by the commodification of opinion. Or that is what I would mean if I were ever to use such a pretentious term.