can argue about George Will's political views. But there's no need
to debate his professional ethics.
December brought to light a pair of self-inflicted wounds to the famous
columnist's ethical pretensions. He broke an elementary rule of journalism
and then, when the New York Times called him on it,
proclaimed the transgression to be no one's business but his own.
turns out that George Will was among a number of prominent individuals
to receive $25,000 per day of conversation on a board of advisers
for Hollinger International, a newspaper firm controlled by magnate
Conrad Black. Although Will has often scorned the convenient forgetfulness
of others, the Times reported that "Mr. Will could not
recall how many meetings he attended." But an aide confirmed
the annual $25,000 fee.
for a wealthy commentator, that's a hefty paycheck for one day of
talk. But it didn't stop Will from lavishing praise on Black in print
without a word about their financial tie.
early March, Will wrote a syndicated piece that blasted critics of
President Bush's plans to launch an all-out war on Iraq. Several paragraphs
of the column featured quotations from a speech by Black. The laudatory
treatment began high in the column as Will referred to some criticisms
of Bush policies and then wrote: "Into this welter of foolishness
has waded Conrad Black."
column did not contain the slightest hint that this wonderful foe
of "foolishness" had provided checks to fatten the columnist's
assets at $25,000 a pop.
Will claimed in a December interview that nothing was amiss. "Asked
in the interview if he should have told his readers of the payments
he had received from Hollinger," a New York Times article
reported on Dec. 22, "Mr. Will said he saw no reason to do so."
Times quoted Will as saying: "My business is my business.
We get it, George. The only question is whether the editors who keep
printing your stuff will get it, too.
three decades as a superstar pundit, Will continues to flourish. Several
hundred newspapers publish his syndicated column, Newsweek
prints two-dozen essays per year, and he appears each Sunday on ABC's
"This Week" television show.
syndicate with a very big stake in George Will cannot be indifferent
to the latest flap, but there's obvious reticence to singe the right-winged
golden goose. The man who's the Washington Post Writers Group
editorial director and general manager, Alan Shearer, said: "I
think I would have liked to have known."
later, via a letter in the New York Times, a more forthright
response came from Gilbert Cranberg, former chairman of the professional
standards committee of the National Conference of Editorial Writers:
"When a syndicated journalist writes favorably about a benefactor,
that is very much the business of Mr. Will's editors and readers."
quoted from the National Conference of Editorial Writers code of ethics,
which includes provisions that "the writer should be constantly
alert to conflicts of interest, real or apparent" including
"those that may arise from financial holdings" and "secondary
employment." Noting that "timely public disclosure can minimize
suspicion," the code adds: "Editors should seek to hold
syndicates to these standards."
will they? George Will is a syndicated powerhouse. And he has gotten
away with hiding other big conflicts of interest over the last quarter-century.
October 1980, Will appeared on the ABC television program "Nightline"
to praise Ronald Reagan's "thoroughbred performance" in
a debate with incumbent President Jimmy Carter. But Will did not disclose
to viewers that he'd helped coach Reagan for the debate and,
in the process, had read Carter briefing materials stolen from the
much later, Will's "debategate" duplicity came to light,
his media colleagues let him off with a polite scolding. The incident
faded from media memory. Thus, in autumn 1992, when Will reminisced
on ABC's "This Week" about the 1980 Carter-Reagan debate,
he didn't mention his own devious role, and none of his journalistic
buddies in the studio were impolite enough to say anything about it.
has also played fast and loose with ethics in the midst of other contests
for the presidency. At the media watch group FAIR (where I'm an associate),
senior analyst Steve Rendall pointed out: "During the 1996 campaign,
Will caught some criticism for commenting on the presidential race
while his second wife, Mari Maseng Will, was a senior staffer for
the Dole presidential campaign. Defending a Dole speech on ABC News
(1/28/96), Will, according to Washingtonian magazine (3/96), 'failed
to mention ... that his wife not only counseled Dole to give the speech
but also helped write it.'"
2000, Will "suffered another ethical lapse," Rendall recounts
in Extra!, FAIR's magazine. The renowned columnist "met
with George W. Bush just before the Republican candidate was to appear
on ABC's 'This Week.' Later, in a column (3/4/01), Will admitted that
he'd met with Bush to preview questions, not wanting to 'ambush him
with unfamiliar material.' In the meeting, Will provided Bush with
a 3-by-5 card containing a crucial question he would later ask the
candidate on the air."
Will has long been fond of denouncing moral deficiencies. Typical
was this fulmination in a March 1994 column: "Taught that their
sincerity legitimized their intentions, the children of the 1960s
grew up convinced they could not do wrong. Hence the Clinton administration's
genuine bewilderment when accused of ethical lapses."
what can be understood as a case of psychological projection, Will
derisively added: "It is a theoretical impossibility for people
in 'the party of compassion' to behave badly because good behavior
is whatever they do."
the past three decades, Will who chose to become a syndicated
Washington Post columnist in the early 1970s rather than continue
as a speech writer for Sen. Jesse Helms has been fond of commenting
on the moral failures of black people while depicting programs for
equity as ripoff artistry. In February 1991, for instance, he wrote:
"The rickety structure of affirmative action, quotas and the
rest of the racial spoils system depends on victimology winning
for certain groups the lucrative status of victim."
subsequent years, not satisfied with his own very lucrative status,
Will made a quiet pact with corporate wheeler-dealer Conrad Black.
When exposed, Will compounded his malfeasance by declaring that it
was only "my business."
that George Will wrote 10 years ago now aptly describe his own stance:
"It is a theoretical impossibility" that he behaved badly.
"Good behavior" is whatever he does.
work if he can get it. And he can.