George Will has found himself in financial disclosure trouble several times in the past -- from failing to reveal his money connections to Wisconsin's conservative Bradley Foundation when citing their data to writing columns critical of former Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry's opponents without mentioning his wife worked for Perry's campaign.
So when he appeared at a VIP dinner to kick off last weekend's Americans for Prosperity (AFP) Defending the American Dream summit, Media Matters was interested in whether he was paid for the appearance by the influential conservative political group backed by the powerful Koch brothers, as well as who paid for his travel and expenses.
But despite repeated attempts by Media Matters to get answers from Will, AFP, his syndicator, and others, nobody is talking.
Because Will routinely promotes Koch-supported candidates and policies in his syndicated column, several journalism ethicists raised concerns about his connection to the right-wing political group and urged that questions about payments for his appearance be answered given Will's prominence in the conservative movement and his past failure to disclose.
“If Will does intend to write about Americans for Prosperity's agenda,” and wants to behave ethically “he should have purchased a ticket to the dinner equal to the value of the meal (thus leaving nothing extra for the AFP's later lobbying use),” said Tom Fiedler, Dean of the College of Communication at Boston University and a former Miami Herald editor and political editor. “Of course, accepting an honorarium -- a payoff -- to attend the dinner would elevate the need for him to fully disclose all this if/when he would address AFP interests in a column.”
But finding out if Will was paid, how much and by whom, is not that easy.
AFP Public Affairs Director Levi Russell said only: “He appeared and spoke with some of our supporters on Thursday night at a dinner, any of the speakers who come to our events, we don't discuss if they are paid or not.”
He later said, “You are free to ask him.” But calls and emails to Will were not returned.
Fred Hiatt, the Post's editorial page editor, said he did not know of Will's appearance fees, if any, and said he is not under the supervision of the editorial page since he is syndicated through the Washington Post Writers Group.
“With regard to George Will: he is not a 'staffer,' as you describe, and Washington Post staff rules do not apply to him,” Hiatt wrote in an email. “He is an independent columnist and we subscribe to his column through the Washington Post Writers Group. Questions about his dining or travel should be addressed to him. I have confidence that he will tell readers, as he does from time to time, when he has a conflict that is relevant to a column he is writing.”
The Washington Post Writers Group did not respond to an inquiry and no such information was provided by the Washington Speakers Bureau, with whom Will is contracted for outside appearances.
So does that mean that readers may never know if Will was paid by the AFP to attend the event, and if he needs to disclose such payments in the future when he writes about AFP, the Koch brothers, or their chosen candidates and policy prescriptions?
Journalism ethics experts say such unknowns are a concern.
“I think that matters,” Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, said about Will disclosing if he was paid. “We know that the guy is a kingmaker and has had off-screen dealings with Republican notables going back to Reagan and we know that that is part of the way he views his role as a thought leader. I understand it may lead into entanglements, but it seems to me that there is a certain transparency. I don't like the idea of him taking money on the side.”
Ken Auletta, media writer for The New Yorker, cited a piece he wrote in 1994 about journalists' speaking fees in which Will also declines to discuss his income from such events.
Auletta said the issue should be viewed the same as a politician who takes money from interested parties.
“One basic way to approach this logically is to say what if you are the editor of a newspaper?” Auletta said in an interview. “What if a politician, a member of the House of Representatives, went before the pharmaceutical industry and he or she is chair of or a member of the health care committee and went before the pharmaceutical industry and didn't disclose he was paid $20,000 for that appearance and didn't disclose that he was given campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, what would you do? You'd put it on Page One. Why is it a double standard when it is a journalist that does that?”
Venise Wagner, San Francisco State University journalism professor, agreed.
“If this isn't a conflict of interest, the mere appearance of such a conflict should give any journalist pause,” she said via email. “But Will is a columnist and his conservative views are no secret. Nor are his connections with conservative causes and money. He could make the argument that people know he is a pundit with a strong point of view. But the problem I believe is the average audience member likely is not clear about what Will has to gain by supporting these conservative causes. Does he support these causes because he believes them to be true? Or does financial gain have something to do with it? Full disclosures of connections a pundit or journalist has with a source is paramount to developing credibility.”
Tim McGuire, Arizona State University journalism professor and former editor of The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, said Will's behavior is “unsurprising in the extreme. He should certainly disclose in future columns but in truth the expectations for Will's independence and transparency are low.”