Opinion Makers Keep Hefty Paychecks Under Wraps

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If you were being paid big, undisclosed bucks by companies directly affected by the issues you commented on as a media personality, would that constitute a conflict of interest? Conventional wisdom says: Of course! But two men recently exposed by the New York Times for being in exactly that situation say: Well, not really.

The supremely well-reported cover story of Sunday’s Times was an in-depth report on retired General Barry McCaffrey. McCaffrey is an NBC military analyst touted by the network as an independent expert, a characterization the Times calls into question by revealing his tangled web of undisclosed business ties to defense contractors. The story describes McCaffrey as a member of “an exclusive club” that “has quietly flourished at the intersection of network news and wartime commerce.” They operate in a “deeply opaque world, a place of privileged access to senior government officials, where war commentary can fit hand in glove with undisclosed commercial interests and network executives are sometimes oblivious to possible conflicts of interest.”

Another story, published in late November, put Dr. Frederick Goodwin, host of the public radio health show The Infinite Mind, under the microscope. Here’s an example of Goodwin’s questionable ethical judgments, from the Times’ story:

… In a program broadcast on Sept. 20, 2005, he warned that children with bipolar disorder who were left untreated could suffer brain damage, a controversial view.

“But as we’ll be hearing today,” Dr. Goodwin told his audience, “modern treatments–mood stabilizers in particular–have been proven both safe and effective in bipolar children.”

That same day, GlaxoSmithKline paid Dr. Goodwin $2,500 to give a promotional lecture for its mood stabilizer drug, Lamictal, at the Ritz Carlton Golf Resort in Naples, Fla. In all, GlaxoSmithKline paid him more than $329,000 that year for promoting Lamictal, records given to Congressional investigators show.

So, Dr. Goodwin, how exactly does that not constitute a conflict of interest? Goodwin conceded that, in that instance, he probably should have disclosed his relationship with GlaxoSmithKline. But he also told the Times that since he consults for lots of drug companies, he has no bias toward any one in particular. “These companies compete with each other and cancel each other out,” he told the paper.

McCaffrey, too, has spoken up in his own defense, noting that his vocal criticism of Donald Rumsfeld wasn’t “the stuff of someone ‘shilling’ for the Pentagon.” Glenn Greenwald finds this reasoning unconvincing:

Both NBC and McCaffrey are either incapable of understanding, or are deliberately ignoring, the central point: In those instances where McCaffrey criticized Rumsfeld for his war strategy, it was to criticize him for spending insufficient amounts of money on the war, or for refusing to pursue strategies that would have directly benefited the numerous companies with which McCaffrey is associated. 

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