Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Armstrong Williams Is Not Like TAP or NPR

Various sites are taking up allegations that campaign finance reform was the product of a sort of left-wing conspiracy to create the illusion of a groundswell. The story starts here. According to the column, which on the facts appears to be unrefuted, former Pew Charitable Trust program officer Sean Treglia "expounded to a gathering of academics, experts and journalists (none of whom, apparently, ever wrote about Treglia's remarks) on just how Pew and other left-wing foundations plotted to create a fake grassroots movement to hoodwink Congress."

The American Prospect, evidently, received something like $132,000 from the Carnegie Corporation to produce a special issue dedicated to campaign finance reform and failed to disclose its financial arrangement in the issue.

The issue itself probably warrants examination and discussion, and I'm not interested in throwing my ignorant self into the middle of it. But Mickey Kaus asks an incendiary question that has, unfortunately, been picked up at MSNBC by Glenn Reynolds and Juan Non-Volokh, guaranteeing its legs in the blogosphere -- "Essay Question: How is the American Prospect different from Armstrong Williams?"

I'll assume for argument's sake that the campaign to pass McCain-Feingold was reprehensible, bought and paid for by foundations with ulterior motives. Bottom line: this is true of most serious legislation (ahem, bankruptcy reform, anyone?).

What I reject, however, is the free pass these commentators give to the notion that this has anything to do with Armstrong Williams. Granted, where journalists or media are paid to espouse a particular viewpoint, there is a conflict of interest and a breakdown of journalistic integrity. Assuming general symmetry here, this means TAP and Armstrong Williams may be very similar.

But to make this comparison so tritely is to obscure a fundamental point which lies at the root of the Williams' scandal: in his case, it was taxpayer rather than private interest group money financing his pre-spun information. That's the reason the Williams story should have had legs, and that's why it was interesting. Corrupt journalists are around, it would seem. Corrupt journalists on the executive branch payroll are something else entirely. It's irresponsible to frame the inquiry in a way that obfuscates this defining feature of the Williams imbroglio.


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