I was sitting in my hotel room in Madison, preparing to give a talk on ethical decision-making in business to the Executive MBA class at the University of Wisconsin when I got a call from CNN asking if I'd be willing to comment on the fact that Armstrong Williams had taken $240,000 to promote the Bush Administration's education agenda in his syndicated column and various media venues. I'd just read the story breaking the news in USA Today and the producer wanted to know if I could think of any justification for Williams to have taken the money. "Well, no," I responded.
Shortly after, the news about another commentator, Maggie Gallagher, receiving payment to advise the White House surfaced. And the outrage ensued about the propriety of commentators and columnists taking money from groups they regularly write about.
These cases cast in stark relief that notion that when it comes to issues of right and wrong, most of us can spot wrong. But the issue got murkier when I started to contemplate the appropriateness of payment columnists receive for the work they do outside their column.
Since February 2004, I've written a weekly syndicated ethics column for the New York Times Syndicate. For five years before that I wrote a monthly business ethics column for the Sunday New York Times Money and Business section. I have never been on the staff of the newspaper, but work as a freelancer under contract. I also write for other magazines. My full-time job is as an associate professor at Emerson College.
For years, I turned down offers from companies to speak or write for fees where I thought there might be the perception of a conflict. But given the heightened concern about who is getting paid by whom to do what, I've been wrestling with the issue of where the line is between what a syndicated columnist should and shouldn't do.
The Executive MBA talk I gave in Madison, for example, is paid for by the University's business school. But the attendees are executives at corporations throughout the Midwest. While they don't pay me directly, most of their companies do foot the bill for the tuition to this program. Should the fact that I speak at other such educational programs be a problem?
If we're concerned as much about perception as we are about a columnist actually being in the pocket of an organization, does this mean syndicated columnists should refrain from accepting fees from anyone regardless of how remote the financial connection?
If there should be a rule that syndicated columnists can never do things of this sort, does this mean that those of us who are not full-time employees are left to live off the meager earnings that syndicated columns draw? Does this mean that we shouldn't accept offers to speak that may promote the column, causing it to be picked up by other outlets?
Or this an overreaction to the issues being raised by the Williams and similar incidents?
How do we frame the questions to ask here, and how do we answer them to come to some sort of ethical response as to where the lines are?
I'm in the midst of trying to work through these questions and I'd like to enlist your help.
What are your ideas about the situation? How would you answer the questions I've posed to myself above?
* Jeffrey L. Seglin writes the syndicated "The Right Thing" column, is the author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, and is an associate professor at Emerson College where he is director of the graduate program in publishing and writing.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2005 (16:2), pp. 6.