Confession is good for the soul, folks, so please bear with me while I get this off my chest.
We've read in recent days that President Bush has ordered his Cabinet members (they're actually called "Cabinet secretaries," but I bet they can't even type) to quit paying commentators to promote government programs.
Bush cracked down after word came out that the Education Department had paid no-longer-syndicated writer Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote the "No Child Left Behind" act, and Health and Human Services paid columnist Maggie Gallagher $21,500 to help promote the agency's marriage-promotion initiative.
Both these columnists have since issued public apologies for failing to disclose to their readers that they were being paid to advance someone else's opinion, even though they shared that opinion already. The indignant opinion-writing community (our motto: "Unlike The Cabinet Secretaries, We Can Type") has been beating up on Williams and Gallagher, and wondering why the heck none of us got fat government checks.
So in the midst of this feeding frenzy of flagellation, it's time for me to offer a confession.
I've spoken in favor of Columbia County's smoking ban. On Monday, its main proponent, County Commissioner Tom Mercer, paid for my lunch at the formerly-smoke-filled Sidetrack Grill. (We both had jalepeno cheeseburgers and onion rings.)
Now, I wrote in favor of the smoking ban long before this private meeting in a Sidetrack booth. Yet even though we didn't talk about the ban Monday, I suppose that burger could be viewed as "payment" in return for my support. And, by gosh, the readers ought to know about it.
The burger was very good, by the way. Food tastes much better without cigarette smoke.
Seriously, we do have an ethics policy at the newspaper. No one is going to claim writers are being bought by a lunch tab, though a high-dollar dinner would certainly be inappropriate. Any one of us around here, me included, would be fired if we took direct payment from an outside interest for promoting a cause of any kind.
But gee, whiz: Williams got $240,000. My opinions may not be for sale, but for that kind of money we could probably talk about arranging a short-term lease.
(And yes, I am just kidding. Really.)
Hurry up, and wait
Let's see if I have this straight.
There is no consensus in the legitimate scientific community for the existence of global warming. Even its true believers doubt it will cause any remarkable change in the world's climate for as much as 50 years, perhaps far longer.
Even without such a consensus and with the potential damage occurring far in the future, environmental activists claim we must take drastic steps, right now, to fix global warming or face a cataclysm on the scale of 2004's really awful climate disaster film, "The Day After Tomorrow."
There is considerable consensus, however, that Social Security will begin to slide into the red in about eight years as more Baby Boomers retire, and face bankruptcy by 2042 as the number of retirees receiving benefits slides perilously close to the number of workers paying them.
Yet the left and some senior activists say everything's rosy, so there's no need to change or fix the socialist safety net.
One problem is based on speculation and may not even exist, but still needs life-changing measures to fix it. The other is real and verifiable, yet should be ignored. Am I missing something here?
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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