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Originally published Friday, January 28, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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The growing liberal pique over payments to pundits

Few things are more titillating to the media than the chance to rehearse cautionary tales of the fallen angels among them. Water-cooler mutterings about professional...

Few things are more titillating to the media than the chance to rehearse cautionary tales of the fallen angels among them. Water-cooler mutterings about professional transgressions make national headlines and journalists get the chance to cluck publicly about their own inviolable integrity.

So it went this week with the public undressing of Maggie Gallagher, the culturally conservative pundit and columnist who was paid some $21,500 to produce a report on the benefits of marriage for the Department of Health and Human Services, then failed to disclose it in her future comments on the subject.

Following a Howard Kurtz story in The Washington Post revealing her work for the department, critics waxed indignant at the appearance of collusion between the Bush administration and a member of the conservative echo chamber. The revelations followed, uncoincidentally, a similar tale of Education Department payments to conservative pundit Armstrong Williams in exchange for his promotion of No Child Left Behind.

The Williams story quite rightly brought censure from both ends of the media spectrum, causing Williams to see his column dropped. And in the same vein this week, Media Matters for America President David Brock wrote a letter criticizing Gallagher's syndicate, Universal Press, for not following suit: "Readers have a right to expect that the columns they are reading have not been secretly bought and paid for by the government," he explained.

A Web site called 365gay.com lambasted the arrangement under a headline, "Second Anti-Gay Commentator Paid Off by White House." Mainstream media like CNN likewise painted the two stories as identical. They're not. Gallagher was paid not to endorse anything in her writings or appearances, but for a single discrete task — to write a report on a subject she had studied for decades.

Now, whether the government should be spending a dime on public promotion of marriage initiatives is a question unto itself. But in this particular case, the story resonated not because of Gallagher's transgression but because of larger suspicions of the press' agenda. Perhaps more saliently, the Gallagher payments provided a platform for Democrats to vent some long-simmering fury about the growing influence of the conservative press.

This latter theme has been of no small occasion in the past few years: Conservative radio and TV hosts from Michael Medved to Sean Hannity to Bill O'Reilly have become powerfully branded figures in the national discourse. Liberal mouth Al Franken has winked at the rise of outlets like Fox News in his polemic bestseller, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right" and tried to emulate the success of conservative talk-radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh in his own "O'Franken Factor" on Air America.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, of course, but it also brings the process full circle:

Back in the late 1990s, it was conservatives who were in a sweat over the unrelenting slant of major national news outlets like NPR and The New York Times. Today's dreaded conservative outlets themselves arose out of frustration on the right with the leftward tilt of the mainstream press.

Here, however, the Gallagher/Williams cacophony has been more about painting the administration itself as untrustworthy. The story of payments to pundits quickly morphed into a larger discussion of whether the federal government should pay for public relations of any kind. Critics on Wednesday noted that the Bush administration had spent nearly double the amount of money on outside public relations last year than it had in the previous one.

This isn't exactly cloak-and-dagger stuff, so let's try to keep some focus. To be sure, in the Gallagher case, it was unseemly to discover a small-government proponent accepting checks written with taxpayer money — there is plenty of room to criticize her participation therein.

But being scandalized that a conservative columnist agreed publicly with a conservative administration is a little disingenuous.

Ultimately, however, of greater occasion for public concern is the deception or slant of news outlets that get their credibility from assumed objectivity. The revelations that CBS News had aired forged documents relating to George Bush's National Guard service was disastrous for the network and they knew it — heads rolled following the incident just as they had at The New York Times in the wake of Jayson Blair's fabrications.

The press has many watchdogs these days — from groups like Media Matters to PR Watch to the blogs that have become a major force unto themselves. You can be sure Maggie Gallagher won't be the last one exposed for apparently compromised independence. It's good to know Howard Kurtz is staying on his toes.

Collin Levey writes Fridays for editorial pages of The Times. She has never received any payments from the Bush administration. E-mail her at clevey@seattletimes.com

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