The American Spectator is offering readers paid access to at least two public officials, including the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Florida, as part of a Caribbean cruise offer.
The move has drawn criticism from both a journalism observer and political ethics experts.
“Yes, there's the buying of access issue ... But bigger is the loss of independence for the Spectator on a key issue they cover - politics,” says Mary Boyle of Common Cause. “It's one thing to engage in opinion journalism, it's another thing to be a mouthpiece for politicians you cover. When a magazine gets into the business like this of signing sources as sponsors, the magazine is saying we're advancing their issues -- not critically covering them.”
The issue stems from an American Spectator offer [see below] sent to readers via e-mail this week that says they can pay up to $5,400 per person for the week-long cruise in December. The cruise is jointly offered by American Spectator with the American Conservative Union Foundation.
Among the political figures that readers can have access to as part of the package are GOP Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio and Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuño.
The offer states participants can “Rub elbows with rising conservative stars like Marco Rubio” and “dine with Governor of Puerto Rico Luis Fortuño at his private residence.”
The e-mail, sent by American Spectator founder R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., also says “you will have the likes of me, [Publisher] Al Regnery, and other pompous politicos to entertain you on the journey -- we will be your captive audience as it were.”
While Rubio is not currently bound by Senate ethics rules because he is a candidate and not yet a senator, the appearance of his allowing access to citizens paying for the privilege rubs some political experts the wrong way. Also, if he wins, he will be a Senator-elect when the cruise takes place in December.
“This is selling access to officials so I consider it to be unethical,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen. “It is selling access and providing gifts or payments for access. They might as well join a carnival.”
Attorney Kenneth Gross, a political campaign law expert, said Rubio's candidacy should make him careful about how access to him is provided.
“You could get yourself into an inappropriate situation if something is not carefully worded,” Gross said about the magazine's promotional material. “You have to be conscious and sensitive to how an outside group might describe access to you.”
American Spectator did not return calls seeking comment. Press officials for Rubio and Fortuño had no immediate comment.
From a journalism perspective, Bob Steele, ethics expert at The Poynter Institute, says the move hurts the magazine's credibility.
“If the American Spectator views itself as journalism in its mission, then selling access to politicians raises serious ethical questions,” Steele told me. “The prospect of journalistic independence should still mean something, no matter the ideology of the magazine. To offer access to politicians and candidates through a pay window smashes the principle of independence.”