Friday, April 08, 2005

Common Sense Nonsense, Part 1

I caught a brief glimpse on the television of Sean Hannity conducting an interview with someone identified as a secular humanist. It was a remote interview, so a split screen was used: Hannity on the left side, the interviewee on the right.

One look at the screen told a viewer all that needed to be known about the interview: Hannity’s full background was an image of an American flag, possibly a waving flag. Behind the secular humanist was a dark wood bookcase filled with impressive-looking books.

This was no interview. It was a conflict of agendas and ideologies made to look like an interview. It was a wrestling match. On one contender's uniform, in glittering gold sequins, we saw the phrase "Common Sense." The costume of the other contender announced the name, "Intellectual." Or maybe "Secularist." Or maybe "Liberal." They're all the same, right?

In most wrestling matches, it's easy to pick the winner before the match even starts: the name-brand wrestler will prevail. Same thing with the Hannity-Secular Humanist match. Hannity was scripted to win. No need to see or hear the interview. The interviewer always wins, partly because the person asking the questions always has an advantage in knowing both the questions and answers beforehand.

The cartoonish nature of this interview just reminded me again what a strange state our country is in right now. Something is definitely rotten, and if the rot can't be spotted directly in the government, it can in the popular media. The news programs -- TV and newspaper -- give us more circus than soleil: just a bunch of vivid images, icons and postures being used to forward vague agendas.

For example, from today’s Boston Globe, here's a story involving media, government, and the trendy collusion of the two:

State employs a Herald columnist
By Raphael Lewis, Globe Staff April 8, 2005

Governor Mitt Romney's administration has awarded a $10,000 contract to a Boston Herald op-ed columnist to promote the governor's environmental policies.

The columnist, Charles D. Chieppo, started working yesterday with the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.

His job calls for writing op-ed pieces and internal documents ''to support the efforts of senior management to promote education, awareness, and acceptance of major policy initiatives" on the environment.

Chieppo will work two days a week until at least June 30. He also plans to continue writing op-ed columns for the Herald, where he is paid for each article.

Chieppo, who signed his pact on April 2, declined to comment yesterday. In January, he left a six-figure job in the Executive Office of Administration and Finance to start a private consulting business and to write the weekly Herald column.

Joe O'Keefe, Romney's assistant environmental secretary for public affairs, said in an interview yesterday that Chieppo has ''fully vetted" the consultancy with the state Ethics Commission and that ''he can't have any contact with Herald reporters or columnists or write anything that would be published in the Herald on our behalf."

Chieppo was awarded the contract over another bidder when his Herald columns were highly supportive of Romney's policies. His March 21 column, which appeared three days after Chieppo submitted his bid for the state contract, praised the Romney mass-transit plan that was largely authored by Douglas Foy, the secretary of Commonwealth development and the person who oversees the Environmental Affairs office that now employs Chieppo.

Bob Zelnick, who chairs Boston University's journalism department, said in an interview yesterday that the Chieppo contract raised ethical questions.

''I think it is inappropriate, bordering on improper, for a person to be writing a column one day and consulting actively in a paid position for the administration the same day or even the next day," Zelnick said. ''I think that blurs the lines between legitimate journalism and politics [in a way] that serves neither the administration nor the public and certainly not the newspaper."

The White House has recently been under fire for paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to columnists and journalists to tout Bush administration policies across a wide array of topics. The most prominent example was nationally syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams, whom the administration paid $240,000. He touted the No Child Left Behind law.

Late last month, The Sarasota Herald-Tribune wrote that Governor Jeb Bush of Florida and several of his subordinate offices have paid more than $100,000 to a Tallahassee production company owned by a veteran television reporter who regularly reports on the administration.

Bob Steele -- a senior faculty member in ethics at The Poynter Institute in Florida, a think tank and journalism school -- said the Chieppo contract is a cousin of those other controversial examples.

''Are his observations and is his writing on the issues and events in any way influenced in reality or perception by those government contract connections?" Steele asked. ''It is a matter of credibility that could be reasonably challenged. And he could argue from sunset to sunrise and back that he is uninfluenced by the contract, but you can't prove that. This intersection [where] he's driven his journalistic vehicle is dangerous at best."

The Boston Globe has four regular contributors who are paid by the piece, said Renee Loth, editor of the Globe's editorial page. Loth said the Globe would not have a regular contributor who was under contract to promote a point of view. ''We want our regular contributors to be offering their own independent opinions," she said.

Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's communications director, said yesterday that neither he nor the governor was aware that Chieppo was brought on by the Environmental Affairs Office. He referred questions to the Environmental Affairs Office.

Gwen Gage, a spokeswoman for the Boston Herald, said that Chieppo has disclosed his new state contract to the paper's editorial page editor, Rachelle Cohen, who decided to allow him to continue writing his weekly column as long as he refrains from writing about ''those topics he's consulting on."

''We have an agreement that he'll stay clear of that stuff," Gage said.

It's not unusual for reporters to move to government jobs and sometimes back into journalism. In the past month, Herald political reporter David Guarino left the paper to become communications director for Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly.

But Zelnick said that situation is different from being paid by the government while remaining a paid op-ed writer.

''I think we've become accepting of the existence of a revolving door between the political and journalistic communities, so when an individual goes from a position in the administration to writing a column of opinion, most people take it for what it's worth," Zelnick said. ''They can discount the opinion if they wish. There's a difference between a revolving door and a newsman who wears two hats simultaneously."

Chieppo's contract calls on him to work with staff of the Environmental Affairs Office ''to develop and coordinate strategy and messaging," as well as ''engage external stakeholders" and ''provide writing and editing support" to staff members writing op-ed pieces on pending legislation and other policy areas.

O'Keefe said that op-ed pieces will not take up the majority of Chieppo's commitment to the administration, two days per week.

''We have a significant amount of technical writing that needs to get done internally, so we expect most of his work to be focused on internal reports and documentation," O'Keefe said. ''There will be a component that will be op-ed pieces on behalf of certain pieces of legislation of interest to us, but it would not be allowed to be run in the Herald. He would assist in the writing."
It's just remarkable to me how cozy together media, government and business are. Is this not the relativism and nihilism that the so-called pundits lament?

More on this in Part 2.

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