Norman Solomon | George Will's Ethics: None of Our Business?

Sunday, 04 January 2004 22:21 by: Anonymous

  George Will's Ethics: None of Our 0aBusiness?
  By Norman Solomon
  t r u t h o u t | 0aPerspective

  Sunday 04 January 2004

  We can argue about George Will's political views. But there's no 0aneed to debate his professional ethics.

  Late December brought to light a pair of self-inflicted wounds to 0athe famous columnist's ethical pretensions. He broke an elementary rule of 0ajournalism -- and then, when the New York Times called him on it, proclaimed the 0atransgression to be no one's business but his own.

  It turns out that George Will was among a number of prominent 0aindividuals to receive $25,000 per day of conversation on a board of advisers 0afor Hollinger International, a newspaper firm controlled by magnate Conrad 0aBlack. Although Will has often scorned the convenient forgetfulness of others, 0athe Times reported that "Mr. Will could not recall how many meetings he 0aattended." But an aide confirmed the annual $25,000 fee.

  Even for a wealthy commentator, that's a hefty paycheck for one 0aday of talk. But it didn't stop Will from lavishing praise on Black in print -- 0awithout a word about their financial tie.

  In early March, Will wrote a syndicated piece that blasted 0acritics of President Bush's plans to launch an all-out war on Iraq. Several 0aparagraphs of the column featured quotations from a speech by Black. The 0alaudatory treatment began high in the column as Will referred to some criticisms 0aof Bush policies and then wrote: "Into this welter of foolishness has waded 0aConrad Black."

  The column did not contain the slightest hint that this wonderful 0afoe of "foolishness" had provided checks to fatten the columnist's assets at $25,000 a pop.

  But 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 0ahad received from Hollinger," a New York Times article reported on Dec. 22, "Mr. 0aWill said he saw no reason to do so."

  The Times quoted Will as saying: "My business is my business. Got 0ait?"

  Yeah. We get it, George. The only question is whether the editors 0awho keep printing your stuff will get it, too.

  After three decades as a superstar pundit, Will continues to 0aflourish. Several hundred newspapers publish his syndicated column, Newsweek 0aprints two-dozen essays per year, and he appears each Sunday on ABC's "This 0aWeek" television show.

  The syndicate with a very big stake in George Will cannot be 0aindifferent to the latest flap, but there's obvious reticence to singe the 0aright-winged golden goose. The man who's the Washington Post Writers Group 0aeditorial director and general manager, Alan Shearer, said: "I think I would 0ahave liked to have known."

  A week later, via a letter in the New York Times, a more 0aforthright response came from Gilbert Cranberg, former chairman of the 0aprofessional standards committee of the National Conference of Editorial 0aWriters: "When a syndicated journalist writes favorably about a benefactor, that 0ais very much the business of Mr. Will's editors and readers."

  Cranberg quoted from the National Conference of Editorial Writers 0acode of ethics, which includes provisions that "the writer should be constantly 0aalert to conflicts of interest, real or apparent" -- including "those that may 0aarise from financial holdings" and "secondary employment." Noting that "timely 0apublic disclosure can minimize suspicion," the code adds: "Editors should seek 0ato hold syndicates to these standards."

  But will they? George Will is a syndicated powerhouse. And he has 0agotten away with hiding other big conflicts of interest over the last 0aquarter-century.

  In October 1980, Will appeared on the ABC television program "Nightline" to praise Ronald Reagan's "thoroughbred performance" in a debate 0awith incumbent President Jimmy Carter. But Will did not disclose to viewers that 0ahe'd helped coach Reagan for the debate -- and, in the process, had read Carter 0abriefing materials stolen from the White House.

  When, much later, Will's "debategate" duplicity came to light, 0ahis media colleagues let him off with a polite scolding. The incident faded from 0amedia memory. Thus, in autumn 1992, when Will reminisced on ABC's "This Week" 0aabout the 1980 Carter-Reagan debate, he didn't mention his own devious role, and 0anone of his journalistic buddies in the studio were impolite enough to say 0aanything about it.

  Will has also played fast and loose with ethics in the midst of 0aother contests for the presidency. At the media watch group FAIR (where I'm an 0aassociate), senior analyst Steve Rendall pointed out: "During the 1996 campaign, 0aWill caught some criticism for commenting on the presidential race while his 0asecond wife, Mari Maseng Will, was a senior staffer for the Dole presidential 0acampaign. Defending a Dole speech on ABC News (1/28/96), Will, according to 0aWashingtonian magazine (3/96), 'failed to mention ... that his wife not only 0acounseled Dole to give the speech but also helped write it.'"

  In 2000, Will "suffered another ethical lapse," Rendall recounts 0ain Extra!, FAIR's magazine. The renowned columnist "met with George W. Bush just 0abefore the Republican candidate was to appear on ABC's 'This Week.' Later, in a 0acolumn (3/4/01), Will admitted that he'd met with Bush to preview questions, not 0awanting to 'ambush him with unfamiliar material.' In the meeting, Will provided 0aBush with a 3-by-5 card containing a crucial question he would later ask the 0acandidate on the air."

  George Will has long been fond of denouncing moral deficiencies. 0aTypical was this fulmination in a March 1994 column: "Taught that their 0asincerity legitimized their intentions, the children of the 1960s grew up 0aconvinced they could not do wrong. Hence the Clinton administration's genuine 0abewilderment when accused of ethical lapses."

  In what can be understood as a case of psychological projection, 0aWill derisively added: "It is a theoretical impossibility for people in 'the 0aparty of compassion' to behave badly because good behavior is whatever they 0ado."

  During the past three decades, Will -- who chose to become a 0asyndicated Washington Post columnist in the early 1970s rather than continue as 0aa speech writer for Sen. Jesse Helms -- has been fond of commenting on the moral 0afailures of black people while depicting programs for equity as ripoff artistry. 0aIn February 1991, for instance, he wrote: "The rickety structure of affirmative 0aaction, quotas and the rest of the racial spoils system depends on victimology -- winning for certain groups the lucrative status of victim."

  In subsequent years, not satisfied with his own very lucrative 0astatus, Will made a quiet pact with corporate wheeler-dealer Conrad Black. When 0aexposed, Will compounded his malfeasance by declaring that it was only "my 0abusiness."

  Words that George Will wrote 10 years ago now aptly describe his 0aown stance: "It is a theoretical impossibility" that he behaved badly. "Good 0abehavior" is whatever he does.

  Nice work if he can get it. And he can.

  Got it?

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  Background link:
"The Hypocrisy of 0aGeorge Will" by Steve Rendall -- Extra!, Sept./Oct. 2003

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  Norman Solomon is co-author, with Reese Erlich, of "Target 0aIraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You."

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  Jump to TO Features for Tuesday 06 January 0a2004
  



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