A Shilling on the Side

Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray reports that former Bush speechwriter Joshua Trevino secretly organized a gaggle of professional writers to opine about Malaysia.  In return, the writers received payments from public relations firms representing the government of Malaysia.  Their columns—which praised the Malaysian government or criticized its political opponents without disclosing the financial relationship between author and subject—appeared in various media outlets, including National Review Online, the Huffington Post, Ricochet, the Washington Examiner, and the San Francisco Examiner.

Some of Trevino’s recruits were affiliated with think tanks at the time, including the Heartland Institute, the American Center for Democracy, and the Manhattan Institute, where I used to hang my hat.  However, none of these writers seem to have published their public relations contract work on think tank websites (with the possible exception of this early 2011 piece by Heartland’s Ben Domenech), nor do they appear to have used their think tank affiliations in their Malaysia bylines.

Which raises the question:  When is your night job a problem?

It’s not uncommon for a policy scholar to have a second source of income.  Young and not-so-famous think tankers are often paid barely enough to cover a modest rent and the clothes they wear for television interviews.  As a novice, I had several colleagues who held second jobs, usually tending bar.  One turned out to be a budding maestro of mixology, but others were not particularly good at their off-hours gigs.  (I personally would have been a painfully incompetent bartender.)  A think tank has no reason to look askance at its bad bartenders, because the two tasks are completely unrelated.  Bad bartending doesn’t reflect on the quality of anyone’s performance as a policy wonk.

Undisclosed public relations contract work, however, does reflect poorly on the primary professional efforts of think tank scholars.  Non-disclosure of a financial relationship with the subject of a published article violates the ethical standards of both journalists and public relations professionals.  It is therefore not surprising that National Review Online, the Washington Examiner, and the Huffington Post have disavowed the Malaysia-themed PR placements, or that the Wall Street Journal has administered a spanking to the writers involved.  There is a difference between off-duty incompetence and an off-duty ethical lapse.

Of greater concern, in my view, is the nature of the lapse.  A think tanker’s failure to disclose public relations contract work as such raises the possibility that he doesn’t see any difference between his wonkish activities—policy scholarship and opinion journalism—and paid client representation.

I used to be a litigation attorney.  I see nothing inherently ethically suspect about paid client representation.  It is just a different activity than either scholarship or journalism.  An advocate for a client takes the client’s best interests as a starting point, and then he makes the strongest possible case for them.  A client-advocate must not lie, but he is also not directly in the business of seeking the truth of a matter reasonably contested.  He is a cog in a larger epistemic process that we hope enables judges and readers to glean wisdom from the public conflict of competing interests.

This is why the mere act of hiring an outstanding lawyer doesn’t cause the public to believe that a criminal defendant is innocent.  On the contrary, if you hire a really fancy lawyer, the public tends to assume that you do, indeed, have a serious legal problem.  Similarly, if you hire a fancy public relations firm, people tend to think that you have probably done something embarrassing or unpopular.  Professional advocates can and do help their clients, but no one mistakes their public advocacy for an independent, expert appraisal.

By contrast, a think tank scholar’s opinion is thought to carry some authority, because he is not being paid to advance anyone’s interests in particular.  Wonks usually apply some combination of abstract ideological principles and well-honed analytical skills to a set of facts in an effort to illuminate the key features of a potentially confusing event.  I afford a reputable think tanker’s opinion some deference in the many policy areas in which I am not an expert, because I assume that it reflects the current sincere belief of a smart person who knows the subject matter much better than I do.

At best, public relations work is an imprudent second calling for a policy scholar, who thus debases the public currency of his expertise. Secret public relations contracts are ethically problematic, because they fool readers like me into affording the arguments of paid client-advocates the benefit of the doubt that we accord to those of independently compensated experts.   Think tanks would be wise to bar their scholars from undisclosed PR moonlighting, which diminishes institutional credibility by raising questions about whether what their scholars do on the job is really so different.  Reputationally, it seems to me that once you’re in for a shilling, you’re in for a pound.

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