Despite all the opprobrium heaped upon Armstrong Williams and now Maggie Gallagher in the punditry payola scandal -- and despite their hesitant public apologies -- neither of those right-wing worthies appears to understand quite where they went wrong.
Although the rule they violated is perfectly plain, they don't seem to get it: No journalist, not even an opinion columnist, is permitted to take money from a politician, not even the president. There are no exceptions, not even for part-time pundits who maintain their own public relations shops or think tanks. Having a handy conduit to launder the money doesn't make dirty cash clean.
Columnist and broadcaster Williams, who was secretly paid more than $240,000 by the Department of Education to promote the "No Child Left Behind" program, has suggested that he is innocent of serious wrongdoing because "it's something I believe in." Evidently he thinks that if he had disclosed the federal funding when he talked about that program, he would have had his journalistic ethics in order. He excuses himself by noting that he is really a paid publicity flack, not a reporter, although he likes to play a journalist on TV and radio and in newspapers.
Longtime syndicated columnist Gallagher, who was paid about $21,000 by the Department of Health and Human Services to promote marriage, says she would have revealed the contract if only she had remembered it when she wrote about the Bush administration's marriage-promotion policy (which, of course, is something she believes in, too). But Gallagher isn't so sure she needed to disclose anything because, after all, she does scholarly research on the subject of marriage and also heads the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy.
"Until today," she wrote in response to Howard Kurtz's Washington Post article on her contract, "researchers and scholars have not generally been expected to disclose a government-funded research project when they later wrote about their field of expertise in the popular press or in scholarly journals. For these reasons, it simply never occurred to me there was a need to disclose this information." She concedes, however, that as a journalist she made a "mistake" in failing to reveal her government deal. "It will not happen again," she promised.
What exactly is Gallagher promising won't happen again? Is she vowing not to accept another government contract while posing as a journalist, or is she saying that she will remember to mention the next golden handshake from the Bush administration?
As a ubiquitous presence on cable channels from CNN to Fox to CNBC, Williams flacked for Bush whenever he could get in front of a camera. (He could and did blather about anything, whether he knew what he was talking about or not.) Most of his commentary had nothing to do with education but that doesn't mean the Republicans didn't get their money's worth. After funds started flowing from the U.S. Treasury to the Williams bank account, his column topics included the president's outstanding appointments of blacks to his Cabinet, the flip-flopping perfidy of John Kerry (more than once), Bush's superior morality, Bush's innovative domestic policies, and Bush's unwavering war against terror.
Williams summed up his appreciation for the president last September: "Some critics accuse the president of having too much cowboy swagger. Perhaps a better label would be political courage. Whatever you want to call it, one thing is clear: While the Democrats exude weakness and indecisiveness on the issue of national security, Bush remains unwavering."
As for Gallagher, she was less visible than Williams (which probably has nothing to do with her much lower compensation) but no less ardent. He didn't have to write about education to polish up the president, and she didn't have to write about marriage to do likewise.
In January 2002, when her deal with HHS apparently began, Gallagher testified at length to the greatness of the commander in chief. He is the nation's "Daddy," she gushed, and every bit as clever as those liberal elitists who used to look down on him. Her encomium concluded with praise for "Bush's genius" and she wasn't kidding.
It is remarkable that Williams and Gallagher, who claim to understand why democracy and freedom are superior to tyranny, don't fully understand why pundit payola is so repugnant. American journalists don't take money from the politicians they cover because we don't live in a totalitarian regime where state-subsidized scribblers are expected to glorify the Beloved Leader.
Yet that's essentially what Williams and Gallagher did. While quietly taking money from the Bush administration, they promoted the president and his party, as well as his policies, while denigrating the opposition. Their misconduct gives off a nauseating whiff of totalitarianism that should outrage any honest conservative.