Right-wing pundits: We’re not on the Bush payroll

Revelations that another columnist received money from the Bush administration to promote an initiative has conservative writers and broadcasters on the defensive.

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In light of the second revelation this month that the Bush administration had hired a Republican-friendly pundit to help promote policy initiatives — payments that were kept hidden from readers and viewers — conservative commentators are calling on the White House to come clean and detail any other controversial agreements. The opinion makers say they don’t want a black cloud of suspicion hanging over their own columns and broadcasts.

“If other contracts exist, then the White House should disclose them,” says Jonah Goldberg, editor at large for National Review Online.

The distrust arose three weeks ago when USA Today revealed that Republican-leaning pundit Armstrong Williams pocketed $241,000 from the Department of Education in exchange for hyping a White House school initiative. On Wednesday, the Washington Post disclosed that Universal Press Syndicate columnist Maggie Gallagher had written approvingly in 2002 about Bush’s $300 million marriage initiative. Gallagher stated that the initiative “would emphasize the importance of marriage to poor couples [and] educate teens on the value of delaying childbearing until marriage.” But she failed to inform readers that she had a $21,000 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to help promote the proposal. Now, the question is: What other pundits were cashing checks?

Goldberg notes that because of pending Freedom of Information Act requests, submitted to government agencies in the wake of the Williams revelation, “It’s going to come out anyway and [the White House] may as well get it out first and clear the air of lingering suspicions.”

“I hope whoever does [have a contract] will come forward promptly, as there’s a cloud over conservatives and all commentators and pundits,” says Tony Blankley, editorial page editor of the right-wing Washington Times. “My suspicion is it will be a very few people. But maybe I’m being naive.”

“I don’t know anybody who writes columns who’s on the take from the federal government and not disclosing it,” says Goldberg.

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Still, the suspicion remains, fueled by comments from Williams himself that additional commentators have quietly signed contracts with the administration in exchange for behind-the-scenes or on-camera support, a brash move that breaks several obvious conflict-of-interest rules. “There’s no gray zone. It’s a strong march across a bright line,” says Blankley.

Condemnation of the practice appears to be uniform within conservative circles. “I’ve never taken any money and I’m appalled,” says Debra Saunders, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. “You just don’t do that.”

Gallagher argues that her duties for HHS were more along the line of an academic doing independent research than a pundit getting paid to hype an initiative, as Williams appeared to have done. Addressing the issue in her column this week, Gallagher wrote: “I should have disclosed a government contract when I later wrote about the Bush marriage initiative. I would have, if I had remembered it. My apologies to my readers.”

Goldberg doesn’t buy Gallagher’s defense that she didn’t recall the HHS payment. “She’s doing better than I thought if she doesn’t remember getting paid $21,000.” He adds, “In the wake of the Armstrong story, she showed poor judgment by not coming clean about this.” He notes that the National Review, which also published Gallagher, is revising the language of its writer contracts to make certain that future contributors disclose all potential conflicts of interest.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Bush insisted the White House knew nothing about any payments to members of the press. Acknowledging, if inadvertently, the ethical breaches of his administration, he ordered government agencies to no longer hire commentators to push policy initiatives. “I expect my Cabinet secretaries to make sure that that practice doesn’t go forward. There needs to be independence,” Bush said. “Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet.”

Bush did not address the question of whether any other contracts had been signed. Previously, White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters the White House was not aware of any such deals. But considering the White House’s claim it did not know about the Williams or Gallagher deals, that doesn’t mean other contracts won’t soon come to light.

If they do, they’ll certainly feed the current frenzy over the media in the Beltway. Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission opened an investigation into whether Williams violated a ban on “payola” in promoting the education law and not telling viewers about the payment.

There’s always been a busy revolving door operating in Washington, in which members of the press cycle in and out of administration positions. And even in their capacity as journalists, some pundits, and conservatives in particular, have enjoyed unusually close working relations with the White House. For instance, last week it was disclosed that Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, as well as Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, helped Bush with his inauguration address — an address the two men praised publicly without revealing their hand in crafting it.

However, the recent episodes suggest a new trend in which pundits don’t wait for the revolving door to spin but simply get paid by the government to act as policymakers while remaining members of the press corps.

“When you sign your name to a check, that’s as clear-cut an example of conflict of interest as there could be,” notes Newsday columnist James Pinkerton, who worked in the White House for six years under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. “I haven’t taken a journalism class since high school. But even then, I think they said you shouldn’t be on the government payroll. It’s KGB-ish.”

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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