Who's Your Daddy?
Are liberals biased by their dependency on grants from left-wing foundations and government contracts? Are conservative and libertarian writers bought off by big corporations?
Who is paying the pundits is in the news because Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist and briber, is spilling his guts to the feds about all the politicians he bought and sold over the years. Abramoff revealed he had paid Doug Bandow, who until a few weeks ago was a Cato Institute senior fellow and syndicated columnist, to write columns on topics of interest to his clients.
(Full disclosure: Bandow and I have met a number of times over the years and occasionally traded emails, but that is about the extent of our relationship. I think he's a great thinker and writer.)
Bandow's mistake was to submit those bought articles to Copley News Service as installments of his syndicated column, still identifying himself only as a Cato senior fellow. He failed to disclose the payments to his readers, Copley News Service, or the Cato Institute.
When news of the payments appeared in the press, Copley News promptly fired Bandow and Cato asked for his resignation.
It was soon revealed that other policy wonks also had accepted pay on the side from corporations or trade associations. Michael Kinsley, a liberal columnist for the Washington Post, dubbed the practice "pundit payola" and wrote, "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."
No one should be surprised that money buys influence in the think tank world, just as it does in the worlds of media, government, and practically everywhere else. Appropriate disclosure and proper guidelines, however, can ensure such influence benefits rather than detracts from an informed dialogue about public policies.
My organization, The Heartland Institute, has a free-market perspective and receives funding from corporations as well as foundations and individuals. Our donors help us decide what issues to address, but not what conclusions to reach. We have written policies that protect our researchers and writers from undue influence from donors. We do not hesitate to turn down contributions with "strings attached," and we have published research and commentary opposed to a donor's financial self-interest and then paid the price by losing their support.
The same thing happens, I'm sure, in groups on the liberal side. Big foundations, trial lawyers, and eccentric billionaires pour dollars into groups such as the Sierra Club, Public Interest Research Group, and National Environmental Trust to attack the Bush administration or advocate for specific legislation. (Check their Web sites if you doubt the partisanship of any of these groups.) I'm sure they often, but not always, get what they pay for.
There is, however, a big difference in the way these potential conflicts of interest are reported in the press. The interests of the funders of liberal groups are seldom pointed out by the press, even though they are often well known (as in the case of the Pew Charitable Trusts and George Soros) and their gifts may constitute half or more of a group's entire budget.
When reporting on conservative and libertarian groups, by contrast, some reporters seem to have made a sport out of finding the most unpopular company in a long list of donors and chaining it to the unfortunate organization. Readers informed that a think tank receives funding from an oil or tobacco company may assume that company is the biggest or even only donor to the institution. In fact, most conservative and libertarian groups get only a tiny percentage of their income from any one company or industry.
There is little satisfaction in pointing out the potential conflicts of interest of spokespersons on the other side when one's real interest and goal is to have an informed and healthy debate about public policies. Unfortunately, the selective use of disclosure of potential conflicts of interest is a standard method of media bias and increasingly seems to be the only argument left in the toolbox of liberals.
Joseph L. Bast (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of The Heartland Institute.