TCS Daily


A Marriage of Convenience

By Ryan H. Sager - January 26, 2005 12:00 AM

I don't much care for anything Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, has to say. In particular, I find her columns on gay marriage and adoption often outright offensive -- she seems to take some considerable glee in slapping gays around in print.

That said, I'm still inclined to ask, regarding the current controversy surrounding Gallagher, where's the beef?

For those just tuning in, Gallagher was recently the subject of a Howard Kurtz column in The Washington Post drawing attention to the fact that in 2002 she had a $21,500 contract with the federal Department of Health and Human Services. The contract was to produce materials for an initiative of President Bush's aimed at promoting marriage; during the same period, she wrote columns defending that initiative.

She was not paid by the Bush administration to write these columns, though Kurtz clearly tries to paint Gallagher as having had a conflict of interest.

Now, this does sound problematic at first blush. But here's Gallagher's defense, offered on her Web site:

"I had no special obligation to disclose this information. I'm a marriage expert. I get paid to write, edit, research, and educate on marriage. If a scholar or expert gets paid to do some work for the government, should he or she disclose that if he writes a paper, essay, or op-ed on the same or similar subject? If this is the ethical standard, it is an entirely new standard. I was not paid to promote marriage. I was paid to produce particular research and writing products (articles, brochures, presentations) which I produced. My lifelong experience in marriage research, public education and advocacy is the reason HHS hired me."

This strikes me as rather sound reasoning. In retrospect, Gallagher wrote in a column responding to Kurtz's, she thinks she should have disclosed the contract to her readers. But she'd be hard-pressed not to genuflect to the throne of journalistic ethics a bit in the weeks after the Armstrong Williams debacle.

In truth, however, Gallagher is not a journalist. She's a paid expert and opinion maker -- a pundit -- who, as part of her work, produces newspaper columns. It seems that while Gallagher was clearly walking a very fine line between punditry and payola, she didn't go too far over it, if at all.

Gallagher's main gig, as mentioned above, is as president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy. I know next to nothing about this group and who backs it (its Web site is not very illuminating on the point). But someone backs it. And that person -- or those persons -- signs Gallagher's paychecks.

How does her work for the government differ from her normal gig as paid head of a specialized think tank dedicated to promoting a specific view of marriage and its place in society? Would it be different if Gallagher had written whatever material she wrote for the government for the conservative Heritage Foundation instead?

It's difficult to see the difference.

At worst, Gallagher has committed a minor transgression -- that of failing to disclose that she had two ideological paymasters, as opposed to one -- far less serious than that of Armstrong Williams, a radio host whose on-air words about the president's education policies were surreptitiously purchased at a premium.

Luckily for Gallagher, that's how people seem to be taking it so far. Whereas Williams' syndicate dropped his newspaper column quickly after his scandal came to light, Gallagher's distributor seems ready to stand by her through hers.

That is as it should be. Concern over pundit payola is justified -- especially when the Bush administration seems to be doing its darnedest to hand out cash to conservative columnists. But this doesn't mean that every activist who has ever done work for the government on behalf of his or her chosen cause without disclosing it is deceiving the audience.

It's difficult to forfeit one's status as an independent journalist when one never staked claim to such title in the first place.

So, as much as gay-marriage proponents might like to see an ideological foe discredited, there's simply not much meat on these bones. If Maggie Gallagher was credible before this kerfuffle, she's credible now.

Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at editor@rhsager.com.


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