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January 29, 2005

Gallagher, Freelance Journalist Independence; The Washington Post

As I wrote a couple of days ago, the Washington Post attacked writer Maggie Gallagher. She has written in support of Bush's education policy, and she has also, separately, been employed by the government to write reports. The Post insinuated that her case was like that of Armstrong Williams, who was paid by the government covertly to advocate the Department of Education's views.

Now Fred Hiatt, who oversees editorials and op-eds at the Washington Post, has just written an op-ed on the Maggie Gallagher affair. I find it unsatisfactory. While it clearly states the situation, there are three problems. First, it does not apologize for the misleading nature of the original article. Second, it essentially repeats, more clearly, the attack on freelance, independent journalists who do work for the government (or anybody else). Third, it is hypocritical. Here's what he says,...

...after which I'll explain more.

We have not written editorials about Gallagher; she was not paid to covertly espouse administration views in her columns. She was paid, as The Post disclosed, to write brochures and essays for the Bush administration on marriage policy; and she separately praised the administration's marriage policy in her syndicated column.

Was that wrong? A member of The Post's editorial board doing the same thing would be fired. Post journalists do not take money from the government , a policy that applies as strictly to news reporters (whom I do not oversee) as to opinion writers. But we also have the luxury of regular paychecks, which freelance contributors and independent columnists may not enjoy.

So the Gallagher case is murkier. Since the Post story was published, she has described herself both as an "opinion journalist" and as a marriage expert entitled to do consulting work in the field. It seems to me these roles coexist uneasily if the consulting work is for the government. At a minimum, as she has since acknowledged, she should have disclosed her government payments in columns on the subject.

1. No apology for the previous article's insinuations. This article clearly states the facts, in the first paragraph above. It acts as if the previous article had too. It had not-- which is why so many people, after reading it, though that Gallagher was paid covertly espouse administration policies, like Williams.

2. Attack on freelance journalists. It is absurd to think that a freelance journalist like Gallagher is less independent than a Washington Post reporter because she does a variety of work and is paid by a variety of employers. Quite the opposite. The Washington Post reporter knows that 100% of his income, his promotions, and much of his reputation is at the mercy of his single boss. They tell him what to work on, they edit what he writes, and they decide whether to publish anything he writes. If he decides to explore a topic on his own, one they do not think ought to be investigated, I presume he would be fired.

Someone like Gallagher also has to pay attention to the demand for her work, but if one employer decides to drop her, she has only lost a part of her income.

As to whether she should disclose her numerous employers-- use some common sense. Would anyone think less of her columns on education because she had done previous work for the Bush administration? Of course not. If you worry about that sort of thing, you should worry much more that she is currying favor for future employment in the administration, in some nice salaried policymaking job. But it is absurd to have a disclaimer like "Note: the author would be willing to accept a cushy job with the administration whose policies she is praising."

Instead, ask if the reader would care. If, for example, Gallagher was praising the brilliant writing in an op-ed by an Education Dept. official, then it would be important that she disclose that she had ghost-written it.

3. Hypocrisy. "A member of The Post's editorial board doing the same thing would be fired. Post journalists do not take money from the government..." Notice how narrowly this is written. It only talks about "the same thing" and "from the government". What about taking money from other sources? Are writers for the Post expected to not take any income for doing journalistic things (writing, TV, etc.) for outsiders? (And what about their wives and other relatives?)

I think not. In my last post I linked to Kaus's Slate column. It points out that the Post has lied on this subject in the past. The Post has been criticized for employing the very writer of the Gallagher piece, Howard Kurtz, as media critic, when he co-hosts a TV show for CNN, a major media company (which is in the same corporation as Time-Warner). As Kaus says,

On Sept. 7, 1999, Kurtz wrote a profile of Rupert Murdoch that touched on the feud between Murdoch and CNN founder Ted Turner, a man who could presumably end Kurtz's CNN career with one well-placed phone call. No disclosure.

Kaus has numerous similar examples-- I just picked one of the half-dozen or so that he had quickly searched out. He also quotes a Washington Post associate editor who said:

I know that Charles and others have those qualms about Howie's multiple employers. ... Howie always discloses his relationships when he writes about any of them. The Post has accepted that arrangement. I think it's O.K.
That, as Kaus shows, is false. Kurtz frequently writes about his other employers without disclosure. Thus, why should we believe that other Post writers do not take money from outsiders?

Posted by erasmuse at January 29, 2005 02:26 PM

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Posted by: Eric Rasmusen [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 29, 2005 09:19 PM


Posted by: Eric Rasmusen [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 29, 2005 09:20 PM

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