The money trail of indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff last week led reporters to a couple of prominent Washington opinion makers. It turns out that for years, Abramoff has been paying two think-tankers, Doug Bandow and Peter Ferrara, to write op-ed pieces favorable to Abramoff’s clients. Bob talks to blogger Joshua Marshall about opinions for sale.
BOB GARFIELD: Last week we learned that Jack Abramoff, the indicted lobbyist at the center of a Washington influence peddling scandal, has been paying cash money for op-ed opinions. Among those on his payroll was Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute, who used his Copley News Service column to promote Abramoff's clients. In anticipation of the uproar, Bandow resigned from Cato and Copley immediately suspended his column. Business Week, which broke the story, quoted Bandow as saying, "It was a lapse of judgment on my part and I take full responsibility for it." Not so remorseful is Peter Ferrara, from a think tank called the Institute for Policy Innovation, who was also caught taking Abramoff's cash for columns. Ferrara told Business Week he does it all the time and will do it again. These sordid doings are red meat for Josh Marshall, who writes the Talking Points Memo blog and has followed such schemes for a long time. He says Abramoff takes money from clients like the Mississippi Choctaw Indian tribe or the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and uses it to buy favorable opinions.
JOSHUA MARSHALL: There'd be a column by Doug Bandow in, you know, X and Y regional papers around the country, saying, look at the Marianas Islands, they're a showcase of free enterprise. We certainly don't want to ruin it by, you know, having the federal government regulating their companies. Let's, you know, everybody get off the case of the Marianas Islands, etcetera. And the background, what the readers of these articles didn't know, is that the governments and companies that are big on these islands had hired Jack Abramoff to protect their interests in Washington, and Abramoff had taken some of that money from them, paid Doug Bandow to write newspaper articles supporting them. In practice, I wouldn't think it's that much different from Bandow being someone who writes press releases for a lobbying firm.
BOB GARFIELD: What do you make of Ferrara's contention that these are his own views, he held them anyway, so what difference does it make if they coincided with somebody's else's interests? What difference does it make if he takes a little extra money on the side? Is that a legitimate defense?
JOSHUA MARSHALL: I don't think so. I mean, [LAUGHS] - I think it's a pretty bogus defense. I mean, again, I think what is somewhat complicated here is that it is all a matter of degree. He works at a think tank that I am sure is subsidized by corporations that agree with those positions that the think tank and he advocate. That is considered okay. There should be disclosure, whatever, but, you know, he already has those views so why can't they support him in his efforts to propagate those views? When it comes down to writing specific columns about specific clients, about specific pieces of legislation, on the direction of a specific lobbyist, he may think that's okay. If he really thinks it's okay, he should probably say in his columns that he's being paid to write those things, because I think it just doesn't pass the laugh test, really, and I think he knows that.
BOB GARFIELD: Before we go any farther, let's talk about what a think tank is. Now, it's a research institution, nominally. It's filled with scholars and presumably is coming from some sort of world view. The Brookings Institution is somewhere on the left, the American Enterprise Institute is somewhere on the right, the Heritage Foundation certainly on the right. But then there are other things called think tanks that I guess are much closer to pure advocacy organizations. No?
JOSHUA MARSHALL: That's right. You do have the more established ones that fit that model of sort of research institutions, but you have a very broad range. And some of them get all their money from one place, get all their money from one industry, and they are basically putting out position papers for that industry's pretty direct economic interests. So in a lot of cases, think tanks are, again, hard to distinguish in a lot of ways from lobbying shops - just they're more lobbying to the public than lobbying one or two members of Congress.
BOB GARFIELD: So shouldn't there be some sort of agreement between newspapers and contributors in which the contributor has to certify that there is no hidden third party subsidizing the opinion?
JOSHUA MARSHALL: I think in the case of most papers, it's such an obvious thing that it's just sort of assumed. You know, newspapers [LAUGHS] also assume you haven't plagiarized the column. They assume a lot of things. You often do have to sign an agreement when you write a column saying that, you know, "This is my work," et cetera, and it could well be that those contracts would be rewritten to include something like you say, "No one paid me to write this. These are my genuine, own views."
BOB GARFIELD: At least in the current outbreak, the culprits seem to get their op-eds in the Washington Times and so forth, the usual suspects on the political right. Is this a widespread practice, or is it just isolated to a few right-wing think tanks and a few right-wing news outlets?
JOSHUA MARSHALL: I've reported on this topic for a long time, and the issue of money and think tanks and where think tanks get their money from is an issue that really does cross the political spectrum. However, this kind of very direct thing, where there are actually people taking what amount to payoffs, I have only seen examples of it on the right. I really haven't seen really any instances of it on the leftward side of the spectrum. I think one of the reasons for that is there is a lack of money, frankly [LAUGHS] - not to be facetious about it - but these are mainly cases of companies that are hiring big-ticket lobbyists that are spreading money around Washington. That's where the money is, and conservative editorial pages are the ones that are likely to have the anti-government, anti-regulatory stance to start with, that they're going to be, you know, congenial to this sort of message. So I think it's mainly on the right. And there's sort of, as you can see, sort of inherent reasons why it tends to be on the right and not on the left.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Josh. Thanks a lot.
JOSHUA MARSHALL: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Josh Marshall blogs at Talkingpointsmemo.com. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
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