Joe Conason's Journal

George Will offers a "Sopranos"-style defense of his shoddy ethics, and the Washington Post lets it slide.

By Joe Conason
Published December 23, 2003 11:21PM (EST)

Twenty years of declining standards
How many free passes does George Will get? The conservative pundit tends to wax cranky about the declining standards of modern civilization, but he doesn't seem to believe that old-fashioned journalistic standards apply to him -- and his timid overseers at the Washington Post Co. apparently agree.

Today's Post relegated the latest news of conservative publisher and Will benefactor Conrad Black to an inside business page. It seems that Black cited his Fifth Amendment privilege when called to testify before the Securities and Exchange Commission about dodgy financial practices at Hollinger Corp., the newspaper company that forced him to step down as CEO last month.

The Post published a short AP dispatch on Black's SEC episode. The AP story neglected to list the various right-wing eminences who received questionable payments from Hollinger during Black's heyday. Yesterday I mentioned that the supercilious Will is among those pundits and pols whose names have turned up on the ledgers of Conrad Black's beleaguered Hollinger Corp. Along with William F. Buckley Jr., Margaret Thatcher and Henry Kissinger, Will was paid up to $25,000 per session to attend meetings of Hollinger's "international advisory board." His informal duties included attending dinner parties with Black and the publisher's wife, Barbara Amiel. Then Will praised Black in his column, which is syndicated by the Post and also appears in Newsweek.

Asked by the New York Times how much he has been paid by Black, Will offered this immortal, "Sopranos"-style response: "My business is my business. Got it?" (Joe Pantoliano must be giving him lessons.)

In other words, the business of journalism is business, and no nosy inquiries will be tolerated. But exactly what business is Will transacting, and with whom? The sentinels of corporate standards at the Post might well ask, particularly because Will is at least a three-time loser where ethics are concerned.

In 1980 Will secretly helped prepare Ronald Reagan for a debate with President Carter, using a purloined Carter briefing book. As a commentator on ABC that same evening, Will praised Reagan's performance without revealing his role in the Republican campaign -- which only emerged later during an investigation of the briefing-book theft. Not only did he fail to disclose his conflict of interest, but he also participated in the theft's coverup by keeping silent. Although other journalists berated him for his outrageous misconduct, Will brushed off the scandal -- and, amazingly, escaped any discipline by his employers.

Will likewise skated past other conflicts of interest involving his wife, Mari Maseng Will, a Republican consultant. In 1995 she flacked for Japanese automakers, and Will blasted Clinton for seeking higher tariffs on her employer's cars, without mentioning the relationship. In 1996 she worked for Bob Dole, and Will praised the hapless Republican presidential candidate on ABC News, again without mentioning the relationship.

Twenty years after the briefing book scandal, Will admitted that he had given George W. Bush a preview of questions that would be asked on ABC's "This Week," because he didn't want to "ambush" the GOP candidate with unfamiliar material. He even handed Bush a note card to help him remember what was coming. By then, perhaps, everyone was accustomed to Will's cheating ways. Little was said - and nothing was done - about that incident.

So what will the Post do this time, now that Will has popped up in yet another scandal? As Paul Krugman wrote today, there used to be rules about this kind of thing for journalists: They're not supposed to take compromising payments and they are supposed to disclose conflicts when writing about any person or institution with whom they have a financial relationship. But two decades of declining standards have taken their toll. George Will understandably assumes that he can get away with anything -- and sneers at any real journalists who dare to ask questions.
[3:20 p.m. PST, Dec. 23, 2003]

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Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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