The kindness of strangers
Pajamas Media has a roundup on paid punditry. The scary thing is that there's very little statistical information on how widespread it is. Anecdotal information suggests that it affects think tanks, medical journals and much else. Rand Simberg asks if we can define when the actual moment of corruption comes.
If I write the piece that I want to write (perhaps partially based on material provided to me by them), and they like it sufficiently to make a donation of an amount of their choosing, is there anything wrong with that? The only way I've been influenced is by the idea of writing the piece in the first place. Where is the line crossed? Only when there's an explicit quid pro quo, in which one is being a stenographer in exchange for an agreed-upon amount?
Vdare Blog says payment does not always come in cash: "there a million 'impure' reasons, from invitations to the Bush White House, to the desire to impress women, that cause journalists to take the positions they do ... " Douglas McCollam at the Columbia Journalism Review talks about another form of coinage used in paid punditry: access. He comprehensively reviews the question of whether Walter Duranty's Pulitzer prize should have been revoked.
Duranty worked within the system, trading softer coverage for continuing access ... When Walter Duranty left the Times and Russia in 1934, the paper said his twelve-year stint in Moscow had "perhaps been the most important assignment ever entrusted by a newspaper to a single correspondent over a considerable period of time." By that time, Duranty was a journalistic celebrity — an absentia member of the Algonquin Roundtable, a confidant of Isadora Duncan, George Bernard Shaw, and Sinclair Lewis. He was held in such esteem that the presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt brought him in for consultations on whether the Soviet Union should be officially recognized. ...
In Moscow ... he enjoyed generous living quarters and food rations, as well as the use of assistants, a chauffeur, and a cook/secretary/mistress named Katya, who bore him a son named Michael ... was driven through the streets in a giant Buick outfitted with the Klaxon horn used by the Soviet secret police.
When Duranty began to describe food shortages in 1932, Stalin showed his displeasure. "In a meeting with the British ambassador to Moscow ... Duranty said government officials had threatened ... "serious consequences" for him ... he was afraid his visa would not be renewed. ... It's clear he was trying to serve two masters." When Malcolm Muggeridge filed one of the first real reports on the famines, smuggling his story past the censors, Duranty was afraid he would be scooped. "Confined to Moscow and perhaps alarmed at being scooped, Duranty began to openly criticize the famine reports." At any rate, after Duranty left Russia, he wrote a best-selling memoir of his days as a fearless foreign correspondent entitled I Write as I Please, which you can still purchase today from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Nothing of the discussion on Duranty should be construed as a tu quoque or excuse for paid punditry by think tanks, bloggers or academics. It's included because of all the forms of payment for opinion enumerated, journalistic access is probably the single most common -- and subtle -- form of quid pro quo.
I was asked at a discussion on blogging whether an anonymous writer could compete with an established expert. My reply was that an anonymous author had the advantage of never being able to never argue from authority. The sole force of his argument came from the proposition 'does it follow?'. Yet that was not wholly accurate and I knew it: people liked to know who you were and to trust you, even though you did not want to be trusted. I added, "when you are read by ten people a day you can say what you please, and no one, not even yourself, will care; but when you are read by ten thousand a day, everything changes and people -- you -- start to care". Punditry is one of those strange activities where for the good of your character it is best not to be too successful. One hope is the Internet, by spreading out readership among different sites will make it hard for dominant voices to arise. While human nature may not change, relative temptations might. Howard Kurtz described in the Washington Post how a Cato Institute scholar was accused of accepting $2,000 for every favorable editorial column he wrote. Which is sad: no one's opinion, except a doctor's or some similar specialist -- should be worth $2,000 -- and even then you should always ask: 'does it follow?'.