January 2006 Ethics Dunces
Lobbyist Jack Abramoff is shaping up as the early favorite for 2006's Ethics Miscreant of the Year, as he appears to have been an unusually potent catalyst for unethical conduct in others. Of course, lots of money will do that. One of those he seems to have inspired is conservative columnist Peter Ferrara, who recently admitted taking pay-offs from Abramoff to write op-ed pieces that supported the positions of the influence peddler's clients. But maybe it wasn't so hard after all: after he was dumped by several of the papers that had carried his columns, Ferrara opined to BusinessWeek Online that he takes payments from lobbyists "all the time" to write articles favorable to their clients, and did not see anything wrong with the practice.
Let's go over that last part again, shall we? Ferrara's column dispenses what is represented as generally conservative opinions, independently developed, by a supposedly reputable commentator of some expertise and wisdom. A lobbyist pays him to use that column to advocate positions favorable to the lobbyist's clients, influencing not only Ferrara's choices about what topics to write about, but also, conceivably, his opinions on those topics. Ferrara, meanwhile, reveals none of this to his employers, the newspapers, or his readers, who may be influenced by his purchased opinion.
Mr. Ferrara sees nothing wrong, therefore, with misrepresentation, deception, dishonesty, bribery, and casual greed. How does such an ethically inert individual get a regular op-ed page column, anyway? How can someone with such abysmal judgement, such a total lack of integrity, and such disregard for the obligations of a journalist be provided with the opportunity to infect others with his toxic character? No doubt about it, Ferrara is the Ethics Dunce here. But his comments combined with his conduct raise real questions about the judgement of The Manchester Union Leader and The Washington Times, two dailies that ran his tainted opinions. It would seem that as long as a writer's views are conservative enough, it doesn't matter to these papers what kind of person came up with them. As for me, I'm a little different; when someone shows terrible logic and analytical ability in one area, I'm very unlikely to care about his opinions on Social Security reform, US foreign policy, or real estate investment advice.
The reason is a lack of trust and respect. It is fair to ask whether readers ought to trust and respect the judgement of newspapers that would put a monumental Ethics Dunce like Peter Ferrara on their Op-Ed pages.