The buying and selling of opinion: Interested in a hot commodity?

December 23, 2005|By MICHAEL KINSLEY

Money talks. It writes, too.

If I were just a tad more pretentious, I would call this an article - wait, make that an essay - about the commodification of opinion. It came out last week that a couple of conservative pundits have been on the take from lobbyist extraordinaire Jack Abramoff. He would pay them up to $2,000 for columns and op-ed pieces that advanced the interests of his clients. This is on top of the $3.95 or so these writers collected from the newspapers themselves.

How embarrassing: opinions for sale, like cheeseburgers. Can I supersize that tax break I'm advocating for you, sir? You can buy a pundit for even less than it costs to buy a politician.

In retrospect, there were clues. For Washington policy nerds, a passionate interest in developments among the Choctaw Indians does not arise naturally.

But let's be a bit careful here. Many of us sell our opinions for a living. That living is under unparalleled threat from the Internet, where opinions of all sorts and degrees of ferocity are available free. At such a moment, should we cavalierly reject this new revenue source?

And even though casting stones is very close to a pundit's job definition, are we necessarily without sin? Sure, we like to think that what we're selling is the expression of our opinions and that our opinions themselves are not for sale. But the two miscreants exposed so far can make the same claim. Doug Bandow and Peter Ferrara are both principled conservatives. As far as we know, neither has published a word that he disagrees with.

But there's a difference between being paid for the right to publish your work and being paid because someone else has published your work. What Mr. Abramoff was buying for clients was partly access to media real estate (op-ed pages) that he couldn't commandeer himself and partly the endorsement of conservative pundits who didn't necessarily disagree with the positions they took but probably would not have bothered except for the cash.

Still, Pundit Payola is only a tiny step beyond what has become common practice in Washington. Mr. Bandow and Mr. Ferrara were both associated with Washington think tanks.

The deals at these think tanks vary. Sometimes they pay you. More often, you might get an office, all the coffee and staples you need, the right to call yourself a "fellow" and maybe a young researcher. The think tank gets mentioned in your ID whenever you publish an opinion piece somewhere - and that had better be often, or you're out on the street.

In recent months, we have learned that the Bush administration sees nothing wrong with paying for pro-American articles to be planted in Iraqi newspapers. Some have criticized this practice as an unhelpful lesson in how to run a democracy.

But the administration has done the same thing, more or less, here at home, giving a fat grant to multimedia black conservative Armstrong Williams for pushing administration policy on his TV show, in his newspaper column and so on. Liberals, meanwhile, don't seem to trust the power of their own ideas to win without cheating any more than conservatives do. In Los Angeles, liberals have organized an infantile protest over changes in the Los Angeles Times' op-ed page, urging subscribers to renew for just three months and await further instructions about whether the paper has used that time satisfactorily to expunge itself of deviationism.

As it happens, I was bounced a few months ago from the job of running the Times opinion pages. So I am enjoying the fuss from afar. But it's still ridiculous. The premise is that op-ed columns and other opinion pieces are not exercises in persuasion but simple counters: If you have more of them, you win. There is no room for the notion that reading something you disagree with might change your mind or simply be more enjoyable than repeated ratifying of what you already believe.

So opinions are merely counters, and those counters are for sale. That's what I mean by the commodification of opinion. Or that is what I would mean if I were ever to use such a pretentious term.

Michael Kinsley is a commentator who lives in Seattle.

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