Prez Column – Mike Argento

Ethical Conflicts and Credibility

By Mike Argento

Mike ArgentoSo it’s happened again.

News breaks that, once again, journalists are accepting money from the government. One is a nationally syndicated columnist, paid a C-note every time she appeared on a Voice of America radio show.

And as I sit here, nobody has offered me cash for anything. Considering my brief stints on talk radio and how bad I am at it, I would think that the government would be shoving large amounts of cash into my pockets to stay off the radio, as a matter of public service and safety.

But no. I get bupkis.

In case you missed it, the El Nuevo Herald, a Spanish-language newspaper in Miami, reported that several well-known journalists had been paid to appear on Voice of America. That report followed one by the Miami Herald, sister publication of the El Nuevo Herald, that three reporters for that paper had accepted payments to appear on Radio Marti and TV Marti.

Radio Marti and TV Marti are U.S. government-funded broadcasting outlets that beam anti-Castro programming and re-runs of “Three’s Company” at Cuba, which jams the broadcasts. (OK, I didn’t exactly confirm the “Three’s Company” thing.)

The El Nuevo Herald reporters were canned. The journalists who appeared on Voice of America, who knows? One of them, David Lightman, Washington bureau chief for the Hartford Courant, was told to no longer appear on the program, even though his editors knew he was appearing on Voice of America and was being paid for it.

Why his editors would allow him to take money from the government for anything is a mystery. It should go without saying – but I guess it has to be said because some folks just didn’t get the memo – that journalists should not take money from any government entity for the obvious ethical reasons.

Other journalists included in the El Nuevo Herald report were the New York Daily News’ Washington bureau chief, a couple of dead guys and syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer.

This was some great investigative journalism, especially the bit about Geyer. A quick Google search revealed that Geyer mentioned her paid appearances on the radio show cleverly titled, “Issues in the News” in a 2005 column. The topic of the column? The government payola to Armstrong Williams, paid by the U.S. Department of Education to tout the No Child Left Behind business.

Earlier this year, Geyer wrote a column calling proposed cuts to Voice of America’s English-language programming “stupid.” In that column, she also disclosed that she is a frequent guest on “Issues in the News.”

Now it appears fairly clear-cut. Geyer was paid – a paltry sum, but a sum nonetheless – to appear on a government-sponsored media outlet. She wrote that she was never told what to say and that the opinions she expressed were her own and that she was not swayed by receiving a C-note for every appearance.

Still, it has the appearance of a conflict and as journalists, we’re supposed to avoid stuff like that. That whole credibility thing.

I was never offered payment for my brief radio show appearances. I did them because I thought it would be fun. (It’s really not.) I never asked for payment and I didn’t expect any. And even if it had been offered, I would have turned it down, on principle and mostly because I was terrible at radio and would have felt incredibly guilty taking the station’s money.

The principle part was the radio station was owned by the richest guy in town, at the time. How would it look if he’d do something dumb in public and I didn’t make fun of him? It would look like he paid me off, even though it wasn’t his idea to put me on the radio and the guy whose idea it was is now doing the midnight shift in Duluth, Minn., I believe.

The bottom line is, if someone offers you money for an appearance or something derived from your column, turn it down. On rare occasions, a civic organization demonstrates poor judgment and asks me to speak to them. They sometimes offer a little gift or knickknack. I always give the thing away or give to my editor.

Once, I was offered cash for a talk. It was strange. I was expecting a small room of senior citizens but when I showed up, the place was a gymnasium packed with people. Anyway, the organizers seemed offended that I wouldn’t take their money. I explained I couldn’t and suggested that whatever they were going give me, donate to the public library or the literacy council.

Usually, though, it’s not an issue. More often than not, when I’m asked to speak to a group, it’s to apologize for writing something that offended them. (I always offer the now-standard Papal apology that I’m sorry you feel that way.)

Now, if someone wants to pay me to stay off the radio…

Mike Argento is President of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and writes three columns a week for the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania.
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