The Man Behind the Byline Isn't Behind the Article. So, Who Is?
C harles Steele Jr. is the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a very prominent fellow. Two of his distinguished predecessors were Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy, leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.
This week, the SCLC is celebrating its 50th anniversary at a convention in New Orleans.
Steele is upset about something that happened before the celebration. A handful of Southern newspapers published an op-ed article under Steele's name on July 18 that his lawyer and the SCLC say he did not write or authorize.
The episode opens a small window onto an open secret of lobbying. Public relations firms regularly solicit authors of opinion-page articles, draft the pieces for them and place the articles in publications where they will have the most impact -- all for a fee.
Usually the collaboration comes off without a hitch and no one is the wiser. But apparently that didn't happen here.
The commentary criticized pending federal legislation that would reduce credit card fees and suggested that retailers stand to profit from it. The measure has been the subject of a long-standing feud between retailers, which want to limit the fees, and credit card companies, which don't.
The commentary reads: "The proposed law would boost the profits of Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney and Home Depot, but it would take money out of the pockets of the small businesses and consumers it's supposed to help."
Wal-Mart is listed on the SCLC's Web site as a sponsor of the organization. No one at the SCLC would want to insult a large benefactor.
According to a statement forwarded to The Washington Post by the SCLC's spokeswoman, Steele "is angry over an unauthorized publication of an opinion editorial that recently appeared in several prominent regional newspapers naming Dr. Steele as the author."
In a statement, Steele's attorney, David M. Walker, said the commentary's publication was "reckless" and "irresponsible."
Walker said in an interview last week that he thinks the K Street public relations shop LMG was behind the article in some way, and that he has been in contact with the firm. "I believe LMG played a role in this scenario; I can't say how big a role," he said. "LMG is in that chain somewhere."
LMG is working for a group of lobbyists for banks, credit card companies and others with similar views called the Electronic Payments Coalition. The firm would say only that it was tangentially involved. A spokesman said yesterday that LMG "reached out through its contractors" to provide "advocacy materials" to the SCLC and "urged the group to go public with opposition to the bill."