Sadly, some conservatives are now defending the practice of opinion writers serving as hired guns (hired quills?) for business and lobbying interests. Among others, Iain Murray in The American Spectator and Giovanetti in National Review Online (which, to its credit, has published strong critiques of payola in punditry) claim that a witch-hunt against conservative writers is afoot. Liberal pundits, they whine, are subsidized by the media, major foundations, and the publishing industry, while conservatives and libertarians have nowhere to go but to the corporate trough. It is therefore in the interests of liberals to, in Giovanetti's words, "isolate conservatives from their natural allies in the business community."
The payola defenders pooh-pooh concerns about journalistic ethics. Murray writes that an opinion piece "does not seek to establish a fact, but to win people over to a particular viewpoint or opinion," and should be judged solely by the quality of the argument. He asserts that to regard a journalist as tainted by taking money from those on whose behalf he or she argues is an "ad hominem" attack.
The fallacy of this ought to be obvious. An argument should be not only convincing but intellectually honest. Undisclosed financial interest in the slant of an article compromises a writer's intellectual honesty and hence his or her credibility.
In the US anyway, you see a lot of what might otherwise appear to be editorial content of magazines labelled with (advertisement). I assumed it was some sort of legal requirement. In fact, I don't know if it's still the case, but I remember scientific journals where the papers had to be labeled (advertisement) because the authors had to pay the costs of publication (yes, after peer review, we're talking legitimate journals not partisan rags). How does that differ from punditry for pay that they don't have to label it? And how brazen do they have to be to make it so transparently quid pro quo, when it would be so simple to do it with a wink and a nod and plausible deniability, the way politicians and pundits used to do it?
It's refreshing to see an occasional piece of integrity from the right punditsphere. There's an interesting discussion along almost exactly these lines at the site formerly attached to Mark Kleiman, with people trying to distinguish between real and fake think tanks. The fundamental problem of pay-for-say is that the paid hacks aren't getting paid for making a good argument or telling the truth as they see it, they're getting paid for saying what their sponsors want them to. If their intellectual analysis led them to sponsor-neutral or sponsor-hostile conclusions, they'd be out of a job and out of print in short order.
A writer who abandons journalistic ethics in favour of cash for comment is otherwise known as a Public Relations agent. As long as a PR guy doesn't portend himself as an unbiased writer, I don't see the problem. Just put the corporate logos somewhere obvious, OK?
This is a bit like one argument for legalizing performance- enhancing drugs in competitive sports. Legalize p-e drugs (allow pay for say) as long as the competitor (writer) admits to using them (admits to being paid). In sport, this would necessitate parallel competitions, one with drugs and one without and some might worry about the possibly freakish, or dangerous, nature of the former.