“Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.”

Sowmya Krishnamurthy

— Henry Mencken

 

Money talks and in the last couple of weeks there have been at least three cases of prominent journalists being bribed to support government agendas in print and on television.

First there was ubiquitous conservative pundit Armstrong Williams, a columnist and broadcaster, who admitted being paid $241,000 by the Department of Education in exchange for promoting the Republican No Child Left Behind Act. In hopes of bolstering support among black voters for the education reform, the Bush administration allegedly paid Williams to push the law and encourage other black journalists to do the same by regularly commenting on the legislation and interviewing Secretary of Education Rod Paige on his nationally syndicated television show. Williams has since apologized and lost his syndicated column, but conveniently kept the payoff.

Part-time journalist and specialist on marriage and family Maggie Gallagher was next. She has admitted to accepting payment of $21,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services to specifically find data and write a Crisis magazine article that would help plug the Bush administration’s multimillion-dollar marriage initiative. The most recent culprit is Michael McManus, who was hired by the Department of Health and Human Services for $10,000 to help train counselors about marriage. Ironically, he has often written favorably about that very same marriage initiative in his weekly column, appearing in some 50 newspapers, since being contracted.

Not surprisingly, President Bush has washed his hands of any personal knowledge of wrongdoing, resorting to the always-popular scapegoat of ignorance. He has though, publicly denounced using bribery to further legislative programs and assured the public that Margaret Spelling’s new leadership in the education department will ameliorate the problem. Already, several federal committees are probing into whether the payments to the journalists violated a U.S. ban on payola; radio, television stations and individuals are required to disclose on-air if they have received compensation to promote a product or an issue. The punishment for future perpetrators, if any, is unclear.

This notion of journalistic prostitution — selling oneself sold to the highest bidder — is not reserved to conservatives or the government in power. Earlier this year, veteran CBS anchorman Dan Rather caught much heat after reporting about the validity of what were later discovered fraudulent memos about Bush’s military history. Albeit Rather was not officially induced by Democrats to report the story, but it is still shameful to see the truth misconstrued in an effort to obtain the big scoop.

Journalism is theoretically protected under a shield of free expression, but in a society where independent publications and broadcast stations are steadily being consumed by multi-media juggernauts like AOL Time-Warner, Disney and Viacom, it seems the bottom line always wins. These companies are completely unhindered in printing and broadcasting, only the opinions which they personally adhere to, and they have no qualms about excluding dissent.

Is it no surprise then that the FOX News Channel touts anchor Bill O’Reilly as truth with nary a liberal antithesis? The problem trickles itself down to even lower rungs of the media as well. All too often, we hear about college-endorsed newspapers or student groups being extinguished or censored when content does not align with the school’s personal agenda.

Is there no asylum? Is selling out inevitable? Perhaps I should just jump on the bandwagon now and join the ranks of professional journalist: For a reasonable amount based upon a generous sliding scale, from now on, I will endorse any person, product or service. Ethics, scruples? I don’t know the meaning of them! Bad press in the past? Forget about it! Need to sweep something under the rug or desire a catchy pro-war ditty at a reasonable price? No matter how large, small or crooked, I will construct a custom-made article inconspicuously weaving propaganda and half-truths to generate instant hype.

And sadly, if history is any indication, apart from the remote possibility that the Bush administration catches on or the American public makes a hue and cry about such misappropriation, business is sure to boom.

 

Krishnamurthy can be reached at sowmyak@umich.edu.

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