In defense of pay-to-play journalism

John Guardiano Freelance Writer
Font Size:

Former Bush speechwriter and FrumForum editor David Frum derides what he calls “the conservative media’s pay-to-play deals.” But if I didn’t know better, I’d say David is simply jealous that conservative talk radio hosts, such as Rush Limbaugh, have pioneered a financially lucrative business model, which we’d all do well to emulate.

David cries foul because, according to Politico, in return for million-dollar-plus sponsorships of their radio shows, Rush and other right-thinking talkers agree to promote conservative think tanks and advocacy groups, such as The Heritage Foundation, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity.

“Understand,” Frum argues, “We are not talking about commercials, separated from the main flow of editorial content. Heritage work is embedded and inserted directly into the editorial flow of the Limbaugh program, as if selected without regard to the money paid.”

On Wednesday, Frum posed this question on Twitter: “Can you imagine if a pharmaceutical company paid two million dollars to CBS Evening News to do segments promoting its drugs?”

Yes, of course: that obviously would be wrong, because CBS News would be sacrificing its independence and integrity for financial gain.

At the very least, there is a clear conflict of interest between doing an ostensibly fair news story about a particular drug and accepting cash payments from the drug’s manufacturer expressly to promote that drug editorially.

But here’s the thing: Rush Limbaugh and other conservative talk radio hosts are not CBS News. They do not pretend to be impartial journalists. Instead, they are commentators with a clear point of view; and they are paid to entertain listeners while promoting that point of view.

So what conservative talk radio hosts such as Rush are selling is not their editorial conclusions or point of view; that’s already fixed and well-known. What they are selling is the publicly stated source material that they use to support and buttress their point of view.

That seems like fair game to me. To make his case for, say, tax cuts, Rush could cite the work of any number of conservative groups — Heritage, AEI, FreedomWorks, Cato. Why not, then, sell or market his publicly cited source material? Why not try to cash in on this information?

Mentioning any conservative group on air, after all, amounts to an advertisement for that group. And this advertisement typically generates more revenue for the group. But why should the group benefit financially but not the talk radio host?

Now, if Frum or Politico had shown that Rush or a conservative talker had changed his publicly stated views for money, that would be a bona fide scandal. But they haven’t shown that and they really can’t. Say what you will about conservative talkers such as Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham, the fact is their views are well-known, well-articulated and clearly not for sale.

But the truth is that any journalist or commentator who is writing a story, giving a speech, or simply taking about a public policy matter has a wide range of sources and source material available to him. And who he cites and who he ignores in his story, speech or talk is hardly determined by a strict merit-based system.

Instead, the use of sources and source material is the result of myriad factors, including: who you know and have heard of, who returns your phone calls, what’s most convenient given your time constraints and deadlines, what you have read and seen online, in a magazine or in a book, what you have heard on radio and television, who has generated “buzz” or interest amongst your colleagues and readers, etc.

In short, who makes it into your stories, speeches or talks depends on a lot of luck and happenstance. So why not use capitalism and the profit motive to help rationalize this largely irrational process? Why not use money to help establish a more orderly and systematic — as well as a more financially lucrative — source-selection process?

And why should highly paid national talk radio hosts be the only ones who play in, and benefit from, this game? Why shouldn’t lone journalists and bloggers also partake in “pay-to-play deals”?

I mean, if I’m a popular blogger such as Robert Stacy McCain, then why shouldn’t I try to monetize my sources and source material? I don’t need $2 million a la Rush Limbaugh. I only need $200 for a brief mention in one of my blog posts and perhaps $2,000 for a brief mention in a series of blog posts.

What’s wrong with that?

Now, I have no idea whether Robert Stacy McCain or any other popular blogger does this. But I also don’t see any reason why they should not — and perhaps I should join them!

In short, the problem with journalism and blogging today is not that we have too much market-based initiative and entrepreneurship; it is that we have too little.

I say: let a thousand flowers (or bloggers) bloom! Bring free-market capitalism to journalism and blogging! And let a million journalists and bloggers live long and prosper! Pay to play! Now.

John R. Guardiano is a writer and analyst in Arlington, Virginia. He writes and blogs for a variety of publications, including FrumForum, the American Spectator and The Daily Caller. Follow him at his personal blog, ResoluteCon.com, and on Twitter @JohnRGuardiano.