Wednesday, November 19, 2003

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Am I a paid lobbyist?

Nick Confessore's article in the December Washington Monthly (link via Brad DeLong) is a profile of James K. Glassman and his creation, Tech Central Station (TCS). One highlight:

In style and substance, TCS's content is an intellectual descendent of the rapid-response policy briefs pioneered by conservative think tanks during the 1980s, and as influential: The site's articles and contributors have been cited hundreds of times in the mainstream media and reprinted on op-ed pages across the country. TCS brings all of this off with a relatively small staff, drawing on the brainpower of established think tanks rather than housing and paying its own fellows and scholars, and publishing their arguments in its own "magazine" rather than hawking sound-bites to print reporters and columnists. "We can get the word out much more quickly [than a traditional think tank]," says Glassman, "and it's a lot less expensive not having a lot of bricks and mortar."

If TCS combines all the strengths of a modern advocacy think tank with the reach and accessibility of a successful political magazine, it has succeeded largely by rejecting the conventions that traditionally govern journalism and policy scholarship. Traditional think tanks are organized under the 501(c)(3) section of the tax code and must disclose many details of how they are financed, being--at least in theory--expected to justify their non-profit status with work in the public interest. Even think tanks of an acknowledged ideological bent seek to insulate the work of their scholars and fellows from the specific policy priorities of the businesses or foundations that provide their funding. Likewise, traditional newspapers and magazines, whether for-profit or not, keep a wall between their editorial and business sides; even at magazines of opinion, the political views of writers are presumed to be offered in good faith, uninfluenced by advertisers.

Unlike traditional think tanks, Tech Central Station is organized as a limited liability corporation--that is, a for-profit business. As an LLC, there is little Tech Central Station must publicly disclose about itself save for the names and addresses of its owners, and there is no presumption, legal or otherwise, that it exists to serve the public interest. Likewise, rather than traditional advertisers, TCS has what it calls "sponsors," which are thanked prominently in a section one click away from the front page of the site. (AT&T, ExxonMobil, and Microsoft were early supporters; General Motors, Intel, McDonalds, NASDAQ, National Semiconductor, and Qualcomm, as well as the drug industry trade association, PhRMA, joined during the past year.)

Given that I've written a few pieces for Tech Central Station, my thoughts on this:

  • One surprise for me, given that Confessore contributes to Tapped, is that he failed to mention Tech Central Station's willingness to recruit its ccontributors from the blogosphere. Flipping through the authors, I saw a fair number of bloggers that are TCS contributors -- Radley Balko, Joe Katzman, Lynne Kiesling, Arnold Kling, Megan McArdle, Charles Murtaugh, Virginia Postrel, Glenn Reynolds, Rand Simberg, Eugene Volokh, and Matthew Yglesias. I'd like to think that explains part of Tech Central Station's success.

  • For the record -- and contrary to Confessore's assertion in his story -- I've never been told by anyone at Tech Central Station to alter the substantive content of my essays to reflect advertiser positions (though, like Matthew Yglesias, I've only really dealt with Nick Schulz, who is never mentioned in the story). Indeed, this TCS essay of mine takes a position on intellectual property rights that directly contradicts some of PhRMA's agenda. Now, obviously, my own predilections on many issues are in keeping with TCS libertarian outlook. On the other hand, that's why I don't think about submitting queries to The Nation. For me, the TCS disclaimer that, "the opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of the writers and not necessarily those of any corporation or other organization" holds. This is the experience of Glenn Reynolds and Megan McArdle as well. [Yeah, but aren't you tempted to change your views to earn hefty fees from publishing in TCS?--ed. Well, no. And even if I was, they pay, but it's hardly big money]

  • Given my experience, the basis of Confessore's objections -- and those of Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber -- are a bit unclear to me. Near the end of the piece, Confessore says:

    [I]t's only human nature to put more trust in the arguments of seemingly independent observers than those of paid agents of an interested party. And that's why a journalist willing to launder the arguments of corporations and trade groups would be so valuable. A given argument, coming from such a journalist, would have more impact than precisely the same case articulated by a corporate lobbyist.

    This is undoubtedly true, but only relevant if the journalist published the essay in a venue that was somehow deemed both nonpartisan and authoritative. TCS makes no bones about its origins and general policy preferences (though see this Josh Marshall post for one possible obfuscation). The DC types that are presumably the targets of influence are certainly aware of it. I'm willing to be persuaded that there's a possible harm here, but I don't see it at this point.

  • As Confessore himself points out, TCS "runs smartly-written think pieces." That may be part of the reason its essays travel so well in the mediasphere -- the caliber of TCS ideas, as opposed to the source of TCS funding.
  • posted by Dan on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM


    You forgot Michael Totten in your list of bloggers who write for TCS.

    posted by: Yehudit on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    Totten, and Josh Elder, and, well, me-- TCS's roster is overflowing with bloggers, probably too numerous to list comprehensively.

    posted by: John Tabin on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    So you wouldn't think it's a big deal if TNR's source of funding turned out to be AIPAC and other Israeli lobbies? And it shared offices with AIPAC? And all along it pretended it wasn't a PR operation of those groups?

    Replace with "Palestinians" if preferred.

    posted by: Jason McCullough on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    Well, there is--first of all--the question of pay scales. When I used to do things for the American Council for Capital Formation (a wonderful organization! with which I am in substantial accord! hint! hint!) they used to pay rather well. If TCS has DCI's resources and is charging its sponsors on a DCI scale, TCS contributors should be doing quite well too. Yet my strong impression is that they are not.

    And then there is the question of proper disclosure of the message filter. One knows that good ideas about the Middle East that don't fit Marty Peretz's view of Israel will not get published in _The New Republic_. What good ideas will DCI make sure never appear in TCS? And why try to hide the link with TCS unless you want to make your readers unaware of what the message filter really is?

    posted by: Brad DeLong on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    Brad: Well, in my experience there's no filter at all. I just write what I want, send it in, and they publish it. Maybe I'm just window dressing for, er, something, but it's not obvious to me what the hidden agenda is there. It's a libertarian policy webzine, so it (mostly) publishes libertarian policy stuff, with occasional pieces by conservatives and liberals. But trust me, I'm not being compensated richly. I made as much on a weekend legal consulting project recently as I do in a couple of months of writing for TCS.

    posted by: Glenn Reynolds on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    I get compensated even less than Glenn does--much to my disappointment, and no doubt to Brad DeLong's as well.

    posted by: Pejman Yousefzadeh on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    Pejman and Glenn,

    I don't know how much you guys get paid, but I'm not exactly raking in the big bucks. It's better than beer money, but not enough to cover the mortgage.

    posted by: Michael J. Totten on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    All these bloggers saying no one asked them to change what they wrote.... That's missing the point.

    Presumably it might work like this.

    DCI gets paid to publish articles under the TCS brand suggesting that we give tax breaks to our Neptunian overlords.

    DCI starts TCS and gets tens, hundreds, thousands of contributed papers from bloggers, associate professors, and the occasional MILF.

    If there is a horde of articles coming in from folks willing to trade a brand name placement for a few peanuts, then TCS doesn't need to ask anyone to change their position, they simply find a piece that fits their agenda regardless of whether that piece comes from a blogger, an associate prof or a MILF.

    After a while survivors emerge that fit their agenda quite nicely most of the time with no other editorial guidance needed. Perhaps it is a MILF, perhaps it is a Reynolds. Like the mutual funds that didn't beat the NYSE last year, you never hear of the losers. And so you have the reynolds and the MILFs all saying that while they did write articles exclaiming the virtues of tax breaks to our neptunian overlords, no one influenced what they wrote.

    DCI didn't need to influence Glenn. What DCI needed was lots of bloggers and associate professors and MILFs (hey, don't we all need the latter?)

    So again, just because Daniel and Totten and Reynolds say they weren't influenced has very little to say to the question of was the editorial board of TCS really just part of the production services sold by DCI to the Neptunians. Of whom I welcome as well.

    That's my theory, and it is mine.

    posted by: anne.elk on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    Full disclosure this is not really my theory alone. I stand on the antlers of other elk, notably Merton Miller as well as the Central Limit Theorem.

    "If there's 10,000 people looking at the stocks and trying to pick winners, one in 10,000 is going to score, by chance alone, a great coup, and that's all that's going on. It's a game, it's a chance operation, and people think they are doing something purposeful... but they're really not." - Merton Miller, Nobel Laureate and Professor of Economics, Univ. of Chicago, Transcript of the PBS Nova Special, "The Trillion Dollar Bet"

    From the transcript of the PBS Nova Special, The Trillion Dollar Bet, Boston University Professor of Economics, Zvi Bodie (Bodie research) put it this way, "In flipping a coin, if you flip it long enough, there may be a long run of heads, which doesn't at all imply that the person flipping it had the ability to make it come up heads. It could just be the luck of the toss."

    We have always been at war with the Venusians.

    posted by: anne.elk on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]


    Your theory applies equally to NPR, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

    You don't see radical left views at the Wall Street Journal, and you don't hear religious right views by the NPR staff. For the same basic reason.

    posted by: Michael J. Totten on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    (For those not visiting Michael) Biases, and who pays, can be extremely important, but are much less so when there are alternatives. Exactly why a free press is important, and blogging helps, like Riverbend of Baghdad's Burning. (Maybe TCS should ask her for policy prescriptions on Iraq?)

    The biggest world view bias in the West today is in gov't paid for schools, with virtually all teachers and professors implicitly aware of the gov't / socialistic / non-market oriented processes of the education industry; and most explicitly supporting anti-market thinking. ALL the presumed worst characteristics of biased journalists exist, today, in most schools.

    The likely alternative, eg with vouchers, allows alternate ideologies more equal time. Still, professional unbiased truth seekers will likely be underbid by "true believers" of one sort or another, willing to accept less money in order to teach their biased version of the truth.

    posted by: Tom Grey on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    I think Dan and other contributing bloggers are TCS's fig-leaf, giving them the credibility they need. I have read stuff about energy tech and policy on TCS that was mind-boggling unscientific and biased towards ... well, business and industry interests. That's what you guys are making palatable. Mixing it with grass makes astroturf less visible.

    posted by: Chocolatier on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    My question is, what does this mean for the readers and the writers at TCS? One possible scenario is that TCS, unlike conventional media, doesn't make money exclusively from advertising but instead has a roster of clients of DCI who would like certain views and agendas to be talked about, and then DCI "shops" for someone who conveniently holds those views.

    If it's happening, that's wrong. But why is it wrong? Well, it's wrong for two reasons: one, in conventional advertising-supported news media, the ad for gin or gasoline or a new pharmaceutical is clearly shown to the reader AS AN ADVERTISMENT. If in fact DCI is getting paid to find authors to promote certain views in advance, then those stories are themselves paid advertisements and should be labeled as such. Secondly, if in fact those authors weren't aware that DCI was being paid up front to put out stories with a certain preselected point of view, it's terribly manipulative and abusive of that author's dignity, who is in essence being made to sell a product and star in a commercial without being told about it. Presumably if that author wanted to write press releases for a political action group, industry lobbying group, or think tank for a living, they would apply for those jobs themselves. Not to mention the fact that such jobs would pay quite a bit more than what freelance authors are likely paid for writing articles for a website.

    Such "prepaid journalism" can't be confused with what's normally referred to as "editorial bias." Sure, Fox and the NYT have editorial "slants." But as far as we know, neither one is taking money up front from a lobbying group and *then* writing (or assigning to people who they think are likely to take a view favorable to the person who's paying) stories tailored to that point of view. If they did, it would rightfully be a Big Scandal. Instead, they take a certain editorial view and take their chances in the free market that that view will be palatable to a big enough audience that advertisers will want to come along for the ride and show their products alongside the news content. In this way, when the money comes and how it comes does make a real difference.

    posted by: Lisa Williams on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]


    I wsa mainly trying to explain why the statements by TCS writers that they were not manipulated may not mean that much. They may not have been explicitly corrupted. It may be a selection effect. Like the manager of the best performing mutual fund, they may be confusing talent with luck.

    I don't think your NPR analogy holds. I visit TCS and I see an article my Glenn Reynolds. My mind boggles that this guy is an accredited prof, but nevertheless I am led to think he is relatively independent of TCS and I am heartened that this is proof of Sturgeon's Law. I hear Juan Williams on NPR, and I am boggled that this republican sock puppet has a job with NPR, but I know that Juan Williams (at least before moving to Faux) is 100% dependent on NPR for his income.

    This use of Reynolds, Drezner, and other profs gives TCS an appearance of agreement with independent profs that NPR does not claim of its reporters. It thus makes more valuable the branding of TCS relative to say Newsweek, or the Weakly Standard, or NPR, and thus more valuable the product of DCI services.

    I'd say more, I have to get to work.

    posted by: anne.elk on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    Hiring bloggers, and especially at what sounds like cut rates, is smart business:

    1) Drives traffic from big sites like instapundit

    2) Gives veneer of grassroots

    Personally, I think this problem is solved best by having all the information out there. I imagine a lot of bloggers are going to think twice about what they read on TCS from now on.

    posted by: praktike on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]


    Lots of magazines do not break even on their advertising revenue. They survive only through contributions by individuals and institutions. These contributors expect a certain conformity to their wishes. In a sense the contributors are buying advertisements for their points of view.

    Three prominent examples would be the neo-conservative "Commentary," the neo-liberal "Washington Monthly," and the leftist "The Nation."

    posted by: Roger Sweeny on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    This whole argument is giving me butt pains you would not believe. Doesn't anyone just address opinions and arguments with which they don't agree on their merits anymore?

    posted by: Bill Herbert on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    But the ownership situation does affect the discount rate on the ideas presented. Doubly and triply so because there is no clear separation of "church and state" in the way the operation is run.

    People discount what the Washington Times writes about the Moonies, because they know the Moonies own the paper. People discount National Review because they know it's the mouthpiece of movement conservatism.

    Now we know to discount what TCS says (or what writers on TCS say) about the issues near and dear to their sponsors' hearts (presuming same), because the site is owned and operated by a lobbying shop. The closer an article is to the point of view of a sponsor, the greater the discount.

    For all any reader knows, an author may genuinely hold views that align 100 percent with the sponsor's position. But for all any reader knows, an author may have been selected for precisely that reason. Or an author may have been paid to espouse that position. How can we tell?

    I heard a story a couple of years ago about a DC area TV station that continuously harped on the need to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. Then, according to the story, it became known that the station management had close ties to a bank on that stretch of Penn, that had lost lots of business because of the closure. I can't vouch for the facts, but it's an illustration of how hidden ownership can push coverage of something that's pretending to be impartial.

    TCS was pretending to publish views that people honestly held. Some of them are honestly held, but some of them, in all probability, are not. With the way the enterprise is run, how can a reader separate the believers from the shills? (The useful idiots from the Bolshies, if you will.)

    From an author's point of view, writing for a political mag (National Review or TNR) is different from writing for a foundation's house organ (Cato or American Prospect). And writing for a house organ is different from writing an organization's PR piece (RJR Tobacco or Greenpeace). If someone tells you that you're writing for a political mag but doesn't tell you that other people are writing PR that will look just like your piece, that is, as Brad has said, very bad manners indeed. It keeps you from making an informed decision about who to align yourself with and can leave you looking like a chump.

    posted by: Doug on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    ...This whole argument is giving me butt pains you would not believe. Doesn't anyone just address opinions and arguments with which they don't agree on their merits anymore?...

    Why argue on the merits, Bill, when you can impugn someone's motives, income, or whatever. Especially when you don't have to even read what is placed out there. Nowadays, no one out there has to look someplace opposite their POV to find validation (which is a basic human need as much as praise, attention, and affection are). There are too many websites/blogs that give the reader a perfect sense that he is right, something CBSABCNBCMSNBCCNNWaPoNYT never would completely give to one's satisfaction.

    This is the real result of the blogosphere, not some great big storehouse of knowledge/enlightenment or as of some big community affair. Hope you like the current results.

    posted by: Brad Schwartze on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    I think Dan and other contributing bloggers are TCS's fig-leaf, giving them the credibility they need. I have read stuff about energy tech and policy on TCS that was mind-boggling unscientific and biased towards ... well, business and industry interests. That's what you guys are making palatable. Mixing it with grass makes astroturf less visible.

    Which makes this all the more inexplicable. Must be really, really tall grass.

    posted by: Slartibartfast on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    The vapidness of this "attack" on TCS is unbelievable. What Herbert and Schwartze said.

    posted by: Robin Roberts on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    Nicholas Confessore's argument is simply a re-dressing of the genetic fallacy: every idea expressed by TechCentralStation can be disregarded because nasty people fund it. In fact, the validity of an argument is independent of the means by which it is presented to the public, and once presented, an argument can be examined on its own merits.

    Daniel Drezner got it right in his concluding statement. One suspects that Confessore and his ilk are bothered that TCS presents good arguments, ones that are contrary to their own beliefs and difficult to refute. The fact that they choose to attack the messenger rather than the message speaks more of their intellectual dishonesty than that of TCS.

    posted by: Jonathan Sadow on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    Jonathan, how does Joseph Stiglitz' Nobel fit into your picture?

    My understanding is he says you're wrong, it may be the case that an argument cannot necessarily be examined on its own merits.

    Damn used car salesman (I'm referring to used car salesman, not DCI or Dick Cheney.)

    posted by: anne.elk on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    The shorter version of my comment above: Which pieces on TCS were paid-for puff advancing DCI's clients' agendas? How can you tell?

    posted by: Doug on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    Jonathan, how does Joseph Stiglitz' Nobel fit into your picture?

    Not that I know what on Earth you're talking about, but if you're using his Nobel as an indicator of intellectual legitimacy, anything presented based on his say-so is appeal to authority.

    How'd Stiglitz get slipped into this conversation, anyway?

    posted by: Slartibartfast on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

    >>The shorter version of my comment above: Which pieces on TCS were paid-for puff advancing DCI's clients' agendas?

    Oh, clearly the global warming pieces. And from DCI's perspective, one of the good things about getting Dan to write for them is that his credibility leaks out and gets transferred over to their global warming positions...

    posted by: Brad DeLong on 11.19.03 at 04:11 PM [permalink]

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