These days we're facing what might be called a propaganda overload. It often seems that every advocate has his own facts, and every special interest spontaneously generates arguments that suit its particular agenda. Take the embryonic stem cell issue. Back in 2001 President Bush wanted to both allow some research and please religious conservatives, so he falsely asserted that "more than 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines" existed and would be available for federally-funded research. So egregious was this misrepresentation that we now witness a supreme irony: Nancy Reagan, wife of the late president who blocked federal funding for fetal tissue transplantation research, is actually clamoring to have science set free.
I want to draw attention to the infiltration of self-interested propaganda in one particularly insidious locale: newspaper op-ed pages. Op-eds may seem rather trifling, but when published in major papers like the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, they can powerfully influence the political agenda. Op-eds get e-mailed around, linked on blogs, spread through Congress in "Dear Colleague" communications, and even introduced into the legislative record. They matter.
That's why a series of recent incidents, in which major newspapers have published op-eds without disclosing their authors' potential conflicts of interest, seem so troubling. If newspaper op-ed pages aim to enrich debate on key issues of national importance, then newspapers ought to ensure that that unique forum doesn't get abused. Yet through the funding of think tanks and other surrogates, special interests have a relatively easy time acquiring what is essentially advertising space on major op-ed pages. This isn't news, perhaps, but the brazenness of the practice has become rather staggering of late.
Two of the most striking recent incidents involve the same author: James Glassman of Tech Central Station and the American Enterprise Institute. Some essential background on Glassman's operation comes from this article by Nicholas Confessore in The Washington Monthly, which depicts Tech Central Station as a strange hybrid: It quacks like a pro-free market journalistic Web site, but it runs articles that closely favor the interests of the site's corporate sponsors. In fact, Tech Central Station is published by a lobbying shop, the DCI Group. Glassman, Confessore concludes, has "reinvented journalism – as lobbying."
And he's extended that practice beyond Tech Central Station itself and onto major op-ed pages. Recently, for instance, Glassman published a St. Louis Post-Dispatch op-ed attacking Morris Spurlock's new documentary "Super Size Me," which links fast food served at McDonald's to the American obesity epidemic= Glassman called the film an "outrageously dishonest and dangerous piece of self-promotion." What he didn't do is disclose that McDonald's partly funds Tech Central Station.
It's safe to assume that Post-Dispatch readers would have approached Glassman's piece very differently had this information been handy. In fact, the paper felt compelled to run a lengthy and embarrassing apology after Glassman's McDonald's ties were brought to its attention. After further inquiry, the Post-Dispatch even realized that Tech Central Station had created a "lavish spinoff Web site…devoted solely to discrediting 'Super Size Me.'" (The site is here.)
Soon afterwards, Glassman was at it again. Along with a Tech Central Station co-author, he argued in the Los Angeles Times that the pharmaceutical firm Abbot Laboratories should be able to maintain its patent rights on a key AIDS drug in the face of a campaign to make the drug available for generic manufacturing. This time, the article failed to disclose that PhRMA, the drug industry trade association of which Abbot Laboratories is a member, partly funds Tech Central Station. As in the "Super Size Me" case, Los Angeles Times readers would have taken the argument very differently had this information been at their fingertips.
Similar op-eds have slipped under the radar on the highly contentious topic of climate change. Last July, for instance, the Washington Post published a revisionist op-ed piece on climate science by James Schlesinger, the former secretary of energy, defense, and CIA director. Schlesinger wears many hats, but perhaps the most directly relevant one went unmentioned in his by-line: He sits on the board of directors of coal giant Peabody Energy, and has since 2001. Schlesinger's op-ed argued that we don't know enough about the human role in causing climate change to embrace strong preventive policies (i.e., fossil fuel emissions reductions). At least one Peabody representative has done likewise.
Consider yet another example in the climate area. The Boston Globe recently ran an op-ed by James M. Taylor attacking the (admittedly ridiculous) science of the film "The Day After Tomorrow," and then tarring much of mainstream climate science by association. Taylor was identified as "managing editor of 'Environment & Climate News.'" What went unmentioned – until revealed by Boston Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy – is that Environment & Climate News is published by the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank partly funded by ExxonMobil. Again: Had this been disclosed, Taylor's piece would have made for a very, very different read.
My argument is not that the work of any of these authors was bought and paid for by a particular company. That is both impossible to prove and probably untrue anyway. Still, had the relevant corporate connections been disclosed to readers in each of these cases, the op-eds would undoubtedly have seemed suspect. That's the whole point of disclosure: It lets readers judge for themselves whether a particular connection may bias an argument or analysis. It shines sunlight on debates in which advocates may attempt to hide their ulterior motives to advance self-interested propagandistic arguments.
Unfortunately, it seems clear that some newspaper op-ed pages need to wise up, and start asking op-ed writers to declare all potential conflicts before running their pieces. Given its recent experience, perhaps the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, at least, will give that idea careful consideration.
Chris Mooney is a senior correspondent for the American Prospect and is writing a book about conservatives and science. Visit his Web site at http://www.chriscmooney.com.