Friday, February 4, 2005

Maggie Gallagher is no payola pundit

Commentary by David Reinhard


David Reinhard

Perhaps we should dispense with the requisite disclosure statements up front:

One, I am not now, nor have I ever been, in the pay of the Bush administration, the Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential campaign or Hillary Clinton's "vast right-wing conspiracy." I can't tell you how galling it is to have to write that, and there are only two people to blame: One is conservative columnist and TV host Armstrong Williams, who accepted $241, 000 from the Department of Education to promote the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act. The other is former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who presided over this nimrod arrangement and defended it even after Williams admitted he was wrong.

Two, I've known Maggie Gallagher for 15 years now. She's from the Portland area and is now president of the Washington-based Institute for Marriage and Public Policy. In addition to being a syndicated columnist, she is the author of articles and excellent books—"Enemies of Eros," "The Case for Marriage"—on marriage and feminism. I've lunched with her, talked with her over the phone and used her as both a source and sounding board.

The Maggie Gallagher I've come to know over the years is witty, tough-minded, level-headed and scrupulously honest in her work. She has spent her entire professional career challenging our hip new age's conventional wisdom on sex and marriage. That took guts. She's never been anybody's shill.

In short, I know Maggie Gallagher. Maggie Gallagher is a (professional) friend of mine. And Maggie Gallagher is no Armstrong Williams.

Which is what many in the media and Democratic Party are now trying to make her. You see, Gallagher is a columnist who had a contract with the Department of Health and Human Services. Gallagher subsequently wrote approvingly of the Bush administration "marriage initiative." Ergo, she accepted cash to tout the Bush administration's marriage initiative. Ergo, she's another payola pundit, another Armstrong Williams.

The Washington Post said just this in breaking the Maggie Gallagher story. "Gallagher failed to mention," Howard Kurtz reported, "that she had a $21,500 contract with (HSS) to help promote the president's proposal."

Indeed, she did fail to report that she had an HHS contract "to help promote the president's proposal." And why? Because her 2002 contract was for specific services she provided as one of the nation's marriage experts—writing why-marriage-matters brochures, ghost-writing a magazine article for an HHS official, briefing the department's regional managers on marriage research, and assisting HHS "in ongoing work related to strengthening marriage."

She hired on as what she had been for years, and chiefly remains to this day: a marriage expert. And for good reason: This recognized marriage expert provided expertise the department didn't have on hand. Unlike Williams, she wasn't hired to promote a Bush initiative in her column or TV appearances.

Now, Gallagher ultimately praised Bush's marriage initiative in her column and on TV, which was fine. Anyone familiar with her work over the years would expect no less. But she failed to mention her HHS work in doing so, which was not fine. She should have disclosed this contract.

In fact, her response to Kurtz—"Did I violate journalistic ethics by not disclosing it? I don't know. You tell me."—suggests two things. One is her lack of guile in this whole matter; nobody but Paige has argued that a Williams-like arrangement is right. The second is the ambiguity of her professional identity, at least in her own mind. Was she a marriage expert who happened to write a column or a columnist who's also a marriage expert? Readers don't need the confusion; disclosure clears things up.

Gallagher quickly grasped this and apologized to readers and viewers for not disclosing. Good. What she won't apologize for—what she shouldn't apologize for—is being another Armstrong Williams. She's properly determined not to allow herself to become part of the payola-pundit meta-story some want to advance.

So, Gallagher's out making the rounds, doing what she's always done best—marshaling potent arguments, focusing on facts, taking on all comers with rigor, subtlety and charm. Only this time it's to defend her own good name. You go, Maggie.

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