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Fred Hiatt

The Rules of Punditry

By Fred Hiatt
Saturday, January 29, 2005; Page A25

Freedom of the press in Russia, in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, took on a double meaning. Journalists felt free to criticize those in power and expose their wrongdoings, which was exhilarating. But too often they also felt free to sell their services -- to print "news" on their front pages, for example, that sang the praises of businesses or politicians who paid a going price.

As a Post correspondent based in Moscow, I would explain to anyone who would listen that such practices violated fundamental ethical canons -- that we at The Post, for example, would never take money in exchange for positive coverage. And frequently my insistence on the most obvious ethical rules would be met by incredulity. "Oh, come on," Russians would respond. "You can tell us. Everyone does it."

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Memories of those conversations help explain why I found the fact that the U.S. Education Department made payments to Armstrong Williams so depressing. Among all the other reasons to deplore such a moral lapse, you can add the diminished credibility of any American who now tries to explain, in developing democracies around the world, that we don't do business that way. Really.

The Williams story, first disclosed by USA Today, has been followed by several others, including allegations concerning columnists Maggie Gallagher, who does not write for The Post, and Charles Krauthammer, who does. Some people have tried to put all three in the same basket, but they do not belong together. Because I oversee both the editorial and op-ed pages at The Post, I thought it would be useful to explain how I think they differ.

We wrote editorials criticizing Williams for accepting money to promote, as his contract stated, government views in his commentary. Even more strongly we criticized the administration for awarding such a contract and (in the case of then-Education Secretary Rod Paige) refusing to acknowledge its mistake. Fortunately, Paige's boss, President Bush, has stated clearly that the contract was wrong and should not be replicated by anyone in his administration.

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.

We are trying to learn from this episode here. When we publish a letter to the editor, we formally ask writers whether they have any conflict of interest that should be disclosed. By that we mean any relationship -- financial, family, employment or otherwise -- that a reasonable reader might consider relevant. We try to ascertain the same from op-ed writers, though the question has not been part of our official acceptance process. From now on it will be.

As to Krauthammer, he has gotten a bum rap. He has been described as "consulting" on Bush's inaugural address and then praising it. But Krauthammer was invited to the White House with a small group of academics and commentators to discuss Middle East policy; though a speechwriter was present, the inaugural address was not on the agenda and, according to several participants, Krauthammer never discussed it. He wasn't paid. And when he commented on television (not in his column) on the speech, he was not being entirely complimentary when he called it revolutionary and radical.

Should he have accepted the invitation to join the White House seminar? That's a more complicated question, maybe worth a separate column on dealings between officials and journalists in Washington. I don't think journalists should become private advisers to officialdom, but we also shouldn't shut ourselves off from interactions with people in power. That line can be a fuzzy one. In Krauthammer's case, the record is clear that he does not tailor his opinions to curry favor with anyone.

fredhiatt@washpost.com


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