Friday, January 20, 2006
Payola: I saw last week that Scripps Howard News Service had sacked Michael Fumento after he failed to disclose that Monsanto had spent $60,000 to help fund a book that he wrote back in 1999.
Fumento finally responded to his firing Thursday, and I must confess that I'm underwhelmed by the entire scandal.
Before I go any further, I believe Fumento should've disclosed in his article that Monsanto had helped fund a book he wrote.
Copley News Service columnist Doug Bandow, who took $2,000 a pop to opine on specific issues certainly deserves his fate, but Fumento's case seems reminiscent of another prominent columnist, the New York Times' Paul Krugman.
Krugman, if you will recall, sat on an advisory board for Enron and received $50,000 for apparently not doing much. Except that shortly afterwards Krugman wrote a puff piece in Fortune magazine lauding Enron.
Krugman disclosed his participation in the advisory board the first time he wrote about Enron, but not his $50,000 fee until a year later.
Comparing Krugman, who still has his job, to Fumento a couple of things stand out. First, the amount of time between the payment and the positive article was much closer together -- both in 1999 -- for Krugman, than for Fumento -- 1999 versus 2006. Second, the reaction from the mainstream media to the revelations. Krugman's inadequate disclosure received barely a ho-hum from most of the media and his employer. Fumento's nondisclosure got him fired on the spot and tarred and feathered in the media watchdog Web sites. Third, Krugman turned on his benefactor; Fumento, on the other hand, has been consistent in his opinion of his benefactor long before and long after he was paid.
I think that the deciding factor here really should be the amount of time that has passed since you took money from whomever it is you are writing about. Six years is a long time to be held to account for your funding. If I were to go on a trip and rent a car from Hertz and something bad happened and I was overawed by the way the people at Hertz bent over backwards to make things right, would I be dishonest if I failed to tell you that for one year during college I washed cars for Hertz (actually a Hertz franchisee)? Yes, it was 12 or 13 years ago, but does that matter?
Fumento should've disclosed. Fumento should've had his hand slapped and told to next time, if in doubt, disclose. Fumento shouldn't have been fired.
*UPDATE* Another view here.