Tuesday, January 17, 2006

With no real issues to promote, Democrats are putting all their eggs into the basket of corruption to restore their political fortunes. They and their mainstream media friends are working overtime to connect everyone and everything on the political right to disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to multiple felonies.

One channel Democrats and liberals are working is tying conservative think tanks to the Abramoff scandal. They know these think tanks have been one of the most effective forces in Washington over the last 30 years in advancing a conservative agenda. If these organizations can be tainted by Abramoff, it may help neuter a major source of ideas, research and funding for conservative initiatives.

Democrats hit pay dirt a few weeks ago when Cato Institute senior fellow Doug Bandow admitted taking money directly from Abramoff to write columns supporting some of his Indian tribe interests. What got Mr. Bandow into double-trouble is that he had a syndicated column with Copley News Service, which meant “journalistic ethics” applied in his case.

Journalistic ethics are almost a contradiction in terms. We see in the papers and on the news every day that journalists are among the least ethical people in society. They think nothing about intruding on the grief of families in their darkest hours, as they did in the recent West Virginia coal mine disaster. Reporters are proud of having no loyalty to their country or anything else except getting the story, whatever the cost. And they justify all their obnoxious behavior on the peoples’ “right to know,” when all they are really doing is indulging their own prurient compulsion to know everything about everyone.

Nevertheless, there is one area where journalistic ethics has some validity — that reporters (or columnists) are not supposed to be paid directly by sources they write about. If nothing else, it creates an appearance of impropriety.

While in Mr. Bandow’s case, I have no doubt his views and Abramoff’s were the same on this issues he wrote about, it can reasonably be assumed he would have written on different topics those weeks had Abramoff’s money not been a factor.

For this sin, Mr. Bandow was fired by the Cato Institute and lost his column as well. Maybe now is the time for him to put his Stanford law degree to work. Among lawyers, willingness to take money from sleazy characters and say anything necessary on their behalf is seen as a virtue, not a character flaw.

More problematic is the case of Peter Ferrara, a fellow with the Dallas-based Institute for Policy Innovation. He also admitted taking money from Abramoff to write studies and op-ed columns on his behalf. But Peter does not have a syndicated column or regular newspaper slot. He is simply a free-lancer who writes about whatever he feels like.

While he should have disclosed his relationship with Abramoff, Mr. Ferrara was not bound by journalistic ethics and therefore has not suffered the same punishment as Mr. Bandow. He is still employed by IPI.

No doubt, Peter will have a harder time in the future placing op-eds. Newspapers will certainly insist on knowing if he has been retained by anyone to write on any topic he has written about.

But there is nothing inherently wrong with writing articles about subjects one has been paid to write about. Corporations, labor unions and other special interests have their staff and their agents write articles all the time promoting their interests. As long as those interests are transparent, everything is fine.

In the latest case, Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Fumento has been accused of an ethical lapse because he solicited funds from the giant agribusiness company Monsanto while writing columns about biotechnology. Because he failed to disclose this, he lost his column with Scripps-Howard.

In the Fumento case, however, no Monsanto money flowed into his bank account. The money went to Hudson to support its overall program. There is no evidence Mr. Fumento benefited monetarily. Therefore, to my mind, there was no ethical lapse and no justification for punishment. Mr. Fumento is still employed by the Hudson Institute.

I think this is all part of an effort to demonize perfectly reasonable, standard fund-raising to inhibit conservative think tanks’ ability to compete in the realm of ideas with liberal newspapers, television networks, universities and foundations.

If liberals and Democrats can make it seem a policy institute receiving any corporate money automatically taints all the work of its writers and researchers, they will have a great victory.

Bruce Bartlett is a nationally syndicated columnist. His new book, “Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy,” is out next month by Doubleday.

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