"Despite its centrality to political debate, economic research is a
very low-budget affair. The entire annual economics budget at the National
Science foundation is less than $20 million. What this means is that even
a handful of wealthy cranks can support an impressive-looking array of think
tanks, research institutes, foundations, and so on devoted to promoting an
economic doctrine they like . . . The economists these institutions can attract
are not exactly the best and the brightest . . . But who needs brilliant,
or even competent, researchers when you already know all the answers?"
-- Paul Krugman, Slate, August
Several decades ago, when veteran radio news reporter Scoop Nisker closed out
his broadcasts by telling his audience that if they didn't like the news they
should "go out and make some of your own," little did he imagine that
the Bush administration, and a host of its surrogates, would become masters
of that domain.
Last year, the public was startled to discover that the Bush administration
had been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to black conservative columnist
and radio and television talk show host Armstrong Williams to flak for the "No
Child Left Behind Act." Those revelations not only called into question
the columns and commentaries Williams produced around Bush's education legislative
centerpiece, it also rendered Williams' entire body of work suspect.
At the end of December, the New York Times revealed that the Pentagon
had been paying Iraqi newspapers to publish "good news" stories about
the situation in country; stories that had been generated by the Pentagon itself.
Political analyst and former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan
argued, during a session on MSNBC's Hardball, that "deception,
misinformation, disinformation, deceit, [and] propaganda" in times of war
Buchanan pointed out that "the Pentagon and our guys over there have got
every right to have good news put into the media and get to the people of Iraq,
even if it's got to be planted or bought."
On Friday, December 16, another branch from the "pay to play" tree
of journalism came crashing to earth.
Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the fiercely libertarian Cato
Institute, resigned after BusinessWeek Online revealed
that he had been paid ample chunks of change by indicted Republican lobbyist
Jack Abramoff to produce columns in support of issues of interest to Abramoff
and his clients. Many of these columns were related to Indian gambling, and
"extol[ing] the virtues of the free-market system" particularly in
the Northern Mariana Islands, the New York Times reported.
After the Business Week story appeared, Bandow resigned from the Cato
Institute, and the Copley News Service -- which syndicated his columns -- suspended
him, pending further investigation.
Bandow apparently accepted as much as $2,000 an article, for writing some 12
to 24 Abramoff-inspired pieces over a several year period beginning in the mid
1990s, BusinessWeek Online reported.
The story also named Peter
Ferrara, of the Lewisville, Texas-based Institute
for Policy Innovation (IPI). Ferrara, admitted taking money from Abramoff,
but insisted that it came prior to his stint at IPI.
Since the 1980s, the political landscape has become thick with conservative
and libertarian think tanks. For a time, it seemed that every other week or
so, yet another press release announced the establishment of a new think tank
or public policy institute. During this period, more than 100 such organizations
were founded, staffed and funded. Some appeared to be fly-by-night operations
run by one person or by a skeleton staff whose sole purpose was to issue canned
press releases on the public policy issue of the day. Other organizations appeared
to engage in original research and received a substantial amount of funding
support from conservative philanthropies and foundations.
Special studies, op-ed pieces, and so-called "highly documented"
studies, covering a broad swath of conservative/free market issues, cascaded
forth from these institutions. Similar to the Bush administration's faith-based
initiative, where little attention has been paid to discovering whether
these groups actually serve the public better than government agencies, much
of the information generated by these think tanks was accepted without much
investigation into the substance of their assertions. It appeared that the sheer
volume of the material that was generated -- especially when similar conclusions
came from different groups -- was enough for editorial writers, reporters, op-ed
writers and radio talk show hosts to spread their findings as gospel.
"Paying to play" is not a new phenomenon, nor, I suspect, limited
to right-wing think tanks. However, over the past two decades, conservative
philanthropists and foundations have spent their money wisely.
In the introduction to its 1996 report titled "Buying
a Movement: Right Wing Foundations and American Politics," People for
the American Way pointed out that:
"Each year, conservative foundations channel millions of dollars into
a broad range of conservative political organizations. Their recipients range
from multimillion-dollar national think tanks to state policy centers, universities,
conservative journals, magazines and student publications, right-wing television
networks and radio programs, and community projects. The issue work funded
by these conservative givers ranges from military and fiscal policy to education
funding to health and welfare program analysis to environmental deregulation
to libertarian workplace policy, and more."
"Conservative foundations have overt political and ideological agendas
and invest comprehensively to promote a given issue on every front. In the
words of the director of one foundation, the right understands that government
policies are based on information from "a conveyer belt from thinkers,
academics and activists," and provides funding accordingly."
"Indeed, the foundations are supporting the work at every station on
the conveyer belt. They fund national conservative "think tanks"
to package and repackage conservative issue positions; state think tanks to
lend a local flair to these issues; national political groups to lobby in
Washington and shape national media coverage; state-based groups to do the
same in the states; grassroots organizations to stir up local activism; national
and state media to report, interpret and amplify these activities; scholars
to record the history of such activities and push the intellectual boundaries
of the issues; graduate students to form the next wave of scholarship and
movement leadership; and college newspapers to shape the milieu in which America's
next generation of political leaders comes to their political awakening."
Uncovering the ties -- and the amount of money involved -- between researchers
and op-eders at right-wing think tanks and industry lobbying groups and /or
their powerful political patrons is no easy task. As the New York Times'
Philip Shenon recently noted, "Executives in the public relations and lobbying
industries say that the hiring of outside commentators to promote special interests
-- typically by writing newspaper opinion articles or in radio and television
interviews -- does happen, although it is impossible to monitor since the payments
do not have to be disclosed and can be disguised as speaking fees and other
Nevertheless, on Friday, December 23, Shenon reported that at least two other
researchers at the Institute for Policy Innovation -- founded by former Texas
Republican Congressman Dick Armey in 1987 -- "had relationships with industry
On October 25, IPI's Susan Finston wrote an opinion piece for The Financial
Times in which "she called for patent protection in poor countries
for drugs and biotechnology products." Last month Finston also penned a
column that appeared in the European edition of The Wall Street Journal
which "called for efforts to block developing nations from violating
patents on AIDS medicines and other drugs," Shenon reported.
In both cases she was identified as a "research associate" at IPI.
However, according to Shenon, "Neither mentioned that, as recently as August
[she] was registered as a lobbyist for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers
of America, the drug industry's trade group. Nor was there mention of her work
this fall in creating the American Bioindustry Alliance, a group underwritten
largely by drug companies."
He also pointed out that Merrill Matthews, Jr., writes for major newspapers
under the IPI banner, advocating policies promoted by the insurance industry,
even though he is a registered lobbyist for a separate group backed by the insurance
Given his previous comments on the matter, it was not surprising to read that
the president of IPI told Shenon "Lobbying is not a four-letter word."
Both Finston and Matthews deny any wrongdoing.
While the reputations of Doug Bandow and Peter Ferrara have been damaged by
the BusinessWeek Online revelations, investigations into the buying and selling
of columnists probably will not end with these two cases.
Just as the incompetence of former FEMA head Michael Brown led enterprising
reporters to look into a host of Bush administration appointments whose qualifications
are suspect, "pay to play" revelations could shed some needed light
on a much larger question; the honesty and integrity of the "research"
that has been produced by right-wing think tanks over the past two decades.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative
movement. His WorkingForChange
column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions,
victories and defeats of the American Right.