Too-Cozy Columnists

Recent ethical breaches by journalists and government officials show a need for a clearer understanding of what it means to have an independent press.

The most troubling breach was payment of $240,000 by the Education Department to columnist and television commentator Armstrong Williams to tout the No Child Left Behind Act without revealing that financial relationship. Congress is right to investigate the matter to make sure government doesn't erode public trust in the press, which is supposed to serve as a watchdog on government. Federal agencies must be required to disclose the recipients of their public-relations spending.

After the Williams revelation, it was reported that conservative syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher received $21,500 as a government consultant on White House marriage initiatives. That's somewhat a different issue - Ms. Gallagher also happens to be a marriage expert, who, like part-time columnist Michael McManus, received money from the Bush administration for that expertise.

Still, at the least, each writer should have explained their government ties with readers beforehand. They didn't, and that may cast a cloud of suspicion over all political columnists.

Columnists who support a particular administration position should do so because they have independently concluded that an idea is worth their support, with no hint of payola, period. And readers should expect that.

Journalists tapped by government for any reason must have an especially full awareness of their vital role in preserving the integrity of the fourth estate. At bottom, that means full disclosure, not covert propaganda.

Part of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics states that "Journalists must be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know the truth." Such sound guidance can be more closely heeded.

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