Both Dan Riehl and J. Peter Freire criticize John Ziegler for his conduct at Western CPAC this morning on their respective blogs. Both are fine bloggers, and I’d encourage people to read their posts, in order to get a rounded perspective on conservative thought. Freire comes closer to the truth on this, I think, but still misses a point that has been lost since last July. And I think it is a point worth remembering.
As bloggers, I’d assume that they would be offended to discover that an influential political blogger anywhere on the ideological spectrum took a large amount of money to write posts supporting certain political positions without disclosing the relationship. We have recently scoffed at the FTC’s notion of regulating such conduct because the government lacks proper jurisdiction for it, but also because — as we have all argued — we police ourselves pretty well in that regard. Bloggers would consider that an ethical rupture, not just a lapse, and would give the blog and the blogger no credibility whatsoever.
That’s what the ACU offered to do with David Keene and the other members of its board, in service to FedEx, for a payment of over $2 million dollars. Dennis Whitfield, the ACU VP, didn’t even make the point particularly subtle in the letter:
Producing op-eds and articles written by ACU’s Chairman David Keene and / or other members of the ACU’s Board of Directors. (Note that Mr. Keene writes a weekly column that appears in The Hill.)
One should note, too, the more subtle warning that goes along with that offer. Give us $2 million, and those columns will support your positions. Turn us down, and …
In response, the ACU and its defenders offered a bit of a dodge by claiming that the ACU didn’t actually change its position in the FedEx/UPS dispute. Keene had signed a letter critical of FedEx’s tactics in the fight after the ACU made this offer to FedEx; Politico insinuated that his signature was a retaliation for not buying the ACU’s services. Keene disputed this, saying that Politico got the timing incorrect and that one had nothing to do with the other, and the ACU said that Keene acted on his own. However, given the ACU’s offer to have Keene and other board members essentially sell space in their op-ed columns, there is a question of credibility on this point as well. (Be sure to read Keene’s response at the time in full at the link above.)
Keene and the ACU have never addressed the real pay-for-play issues in this controversy. Now we have to ask ourselves how many of the ACU’s clients accepted similar offers, and how many of the op-eds written by Keene and others resulted from those relationships. Or at least we should have been asking those questions, but there seems to be a reluctance to hold our own side to account for ethical behavior. David Keene has been a stalwart for the conservative cause, but if he used that position of high esteem to sell ad space in his columns, that makes the damage all the greater to conservatism. And conservatives should be addressing that damage and ensuring that it doesn’t get repeated.
Or would we rather leave that to the FTC?
People are free to disagree with John’s tactics, as both of these fine bloggers do. But at least John is still asking the question, and we should at least make an effort to get some real answers.
Update: Dan has a lengthy post today on this subject, which you should read in full. However, I do want to quote and respond to this argument. I responded to it when Keene made it in July, but I’ll repeat it here:
The sole issue there, if there is one, is should the ACU invoke Keene’s name, or the offer of a potential Op Ed as part of any paid promotional campaign. It should also be noted the ACU was not seeking a donation, but transacting a piece of business in the professional promotions area. I picked up the phone to reach the ACU on the one possibly remaining issue left open for some. While we did discuss the issue at length, for a statement they simply referred me tothe very end of David Keene’s Hill column of July 20th:
The offer for an an Op Ed in the FedEx proposal was included without permission. The Hill column is not and has never been for sale and it never will be.
Last week an article in another publication alleged that I made an unethical proposal as chairman of the American Conservative Union to a potential contributor that could be read in part to imply that I might write a column in this space favorable to the contributor’s position.
Upon seeing this allegation I read the solicitation for the first time, found the inference appalling, and reprimanded the ACU staffer who wrote it. I have never used this column to benefit my clients or non-profits and never will.
I find this argument unconvincing for a number of reasons. Remember, Whitfield was working on a proposal that would have brought more than $2 million to the ACU. It would be surprising indeed if Keene had taken so little interest in the project that he had never asked Whitfield for a presentation on the proposal before it went out the door. The fact that Whitfield didn’t get fired for making this incredibly damaging offer, but was merely “reprimanded” instead, tends to indicate that either (a) Whitfield didn’t go off the reservation at all with this proposal but merely got caught at it, (b) Keene doesn’t take its implications seriously, or (c) both.
Whitfield offered to sell Keene’s integrity, and that of the other ACU board members. Unless that was SOP around the ACU, it deserves more than a reprimand. If Keene doesn’t understand that, he’s not the man to lead the organization any longer.