Price of integrity

By Editorial Board

Wednesday’s Washington Post reported that syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher was paid $21,500 by the Department of Health and Human Services to encourage President Bush’s $300 million program to strengthen marriage. Gallagher drafted a magazine article for the department official overseeing the program, wrote brochures for the program and briefed department officials.

The Post article is only the latest report of the Bush administration using bribes and deception to get favorable media coverage. Last year, the administration sent “video news releases” touting the President’s prescription drug plan to TV stations, who aired them as if they were regular news reports. And just a few weeks ago, commentator Armstrong Williams was found to have accepted $240,000 to push the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind initiative.

These acts show a disturbing lack of morals on the Bush administration’s part – not to mention that they are flagrant misuses of taxpayer money. But we are even more disappointed in Williams, Gallagher and other journalists who betrayed the public and their peers by taking the tainted cash. For journalists, maintaining impartiality isn’t a quaint guideline, but an essential part of the profession. Incidents like these damage the credibility of all those in the profession. Journalism is a profession where respect is not a given, it must be earned from one’s readership and audience. These unethical practices place doubt in the minds of the public in our ability to uphold a system of values that rests at the foundation of our work.

But what makes this incident more disturbing is Gallagher’s unapologetic attitude. When asked if she violated journalistic ethics, she replied “Did I violate journalistic ethics by not disclosing it? I don’t know. You tell me.”

There is no doubt that Gallagher violated the ethical standards that any true journalist practices. Taking money from a government agency, publishing it and not disclosing immediately that she was paid to do so constitutes a lapse in judgement that should not be an afterthought.

For Gallagher to state that she would have disclosed the information had anyone asked her about it does not excuse her from her actions. Journalists who seek to serve as a conduit for truth know better than to hide behind such an absurd excuse. A true journalist never has anything to hide about his or her work and understands the necessity to be forthcoming with such information before being exposed by another journalist.

While President Bush has now called for all of his Cabinet secretaries to immediately stop the practice of paying commentators to advance the White House agenda, this problem can easily be avoided in the future if all professional journalists realize that their job is to be a watchdog with its eyes set on the government. The public, not the government, should be feeding us our steak.

We hope that in the future, journalists will learn from these shameful days in the profession, and that we will preserve the honor and integrity of those who braved threats, bullets and jail cells to win the public’s trust that some take for granted.