Pundit payola… First it was Armstrong Williams. Now, we have a second example of a conservative pundit on the Bush administration payroll. In a scoop in today’s Washington Post, Howard Kurtz reports that syndicated columnist and pro-wedlock guru Maggie Gallagher had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to promote the president’s $300 million marriage promotion initiative. She also received $20,000 from the Justice Department to write a report titled “Can Government Strengthen Marriage?” for a conservative advocacy group, the National Fatherhood Initiative, the founder of which, Josh Marshall notes, is Wade Horn, the HHS assistant secretary who arranged the first contract. Gallagher never disclosed any of this to her readers.
What’s striking about this emerging payola scandal is the aggressive cluelessness of the participants towards basic standards of journalistic decency. Remember how Armstrong Williams claimed never to have considered that it might be wrong to take a quarter million dollars of government money to promote the administration’s education policies as an “independent” opinion journalist and not, at the very least, disclose the fact? Gallagher betrayed the same indifference when confronted by Kurtz. “Did I violate journalistic ethics by not disclosing it?…I don’t know. You tell me.”
This is an attitude you’re seeing a lot of today in Washington. The ascendant class of conservative pundit-operatives looks upon old strictures of behavior with a kind of incomprehension, even contempt. In this moral universe, Pentagon advisor Richard Perle can think it’s perfectly ok to pen a Wall Street Journal op-ed praising an Air Force plan to lease refueling planes from Boeing at hideously jacked-up rates while at the same time being a principal in a venture capital fund into which Boeing invested $20 million. In this environment, James Glassman can feel just fine about editing a conservative web magazine that is published by a notorious GOP lobbying firm whose clients’ causes receive favorable editorial coverage on the site.
These are perhaps egregious examples, the revelations of which still have some ability to shock. But as long as the perpetrators continue to prosper in Washington–as Perle and Glassman do, and Williams and Gallagher no doubt will–their sins have the effect of stretching the boundaries of what is considered acceptable, and slightly lesser sins draw no notice. In his famous essay “Defining Deviancy Down,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote that “over the past generation…the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can “afford to recognize” and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the “normal” level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.” Moynihan was writing about behavioral standards among the broad middle-class and the poor. Something similar, I think, is happening at the highest levels of public life in Washington.