January 2, 2004
None of Our
By NORMAN SOLOMON
We can argue about George
Will's political views. But there's no need to
debate his professional ethics.Late December  brought to light a
pair of self-inflicted wounds to the famous
columnist's ethical pretensions. He broke an
elementary rule of journalism -- and then, when
The New York Times called
him on it, proclaimed the transgression to be
no one's business but his own.
It turns out that George Will was among a number
of prominent individuals to receive $25,000 per day
of conversation on a board of advisers for
Hollinger International, a newspaper firm
controlled by magnate Conrad Black (below
left). Although Will has often scorned the
convenient forgetfulness of others, the
Times reported that "Mr. Will could not
recall how many meetings he attended." But an aide
confirmed the annual $25,000 fee.
Even for a wealthy
commentator, that's a hefty paycheck for one day
of talk. But it didn't stop Will from lavishing
praise on Black in print -- without a word about
their financial tie.
In early March , Will wrote a
syndicated piece that blasted critics of
President Bush's plans to launch an all-out
war on Iraq. Several paragraphs of the column
featured quotations from a speech by Black. The
laudatory treatment began high in the column as
Will referred to some criticisms of Bush policies
and then wrote: "Into this welter of foolishness
has waded Conrad Black."
The column did not contain the slightest hint
that this wonderful foe of "foolishness" had
provided checks to fatten the columnist's assets at
$25,000 a pop.
But Will claimed in a December interview that
nothing was amiss. "Asked in the interview if he
should have told his readers of the payments he had
received from Hollinger," a New York Times
article reported on Dec. 22, "Mr. Will said he saw
no reason to do so."
Times quoted Will as saying: "My business is
my business. Got it?"
Yeah. We get it, George. The only question is
whether the editors who keep printing your stuff
will get it, too.
After three decades as a superstar pundit, Will
continues to flourish. Several hundred newspapers
publish his syndicated column, Newsweek
prints two-dozen essays per year, and he appears
each Sunday on ABC's "This Week" television
The syndicate with a very big stake in George
Will cannot be indifferent to the latest flap, but
there's obvious reticence to singe the right-winged
golden goose. The man who's the Washington
Post Writers Group editorial director and
general manager, Alan Shearer, said: "I
think I would have liked to have known."
A week later, via a letter in The New York
Times, a more forthright response came from
Gilbert Cranberg, former chairman of the
professional standards committee of the National
Conference of Editorial Writers: "When a syndicated
journalist writes favorably about a benefactor,
that is very much the business of Mr. Will's
editors and readers."
Cranberg quoted from the National Conference of
Editorial Writers code of ethics, which includes
provisions that "the writer should be constantly
alert to conflicts of interest, real or apparent"
-- including "those that may arise from financial
holdings" and "secondary employment." Noting that
"timely public disclosure can minimize suspicion,"
the code adds: "Editors should seek to hold
syndicates to these standards."
But will they? George
Will is a syndicated powerhouse. And he has
gotten away with hiding other big conflicts of
interest over the last quarter-century.
In October 1980, Will appeared on the ABC
television program "Nightline" to praise Ronald
Reagan's "thoroughbred performance" in a debate
with incumbent President Jimmy Carter. But
Will did not disclose to viewers that he'd helped
coach Reagan for the debate -- and, in the process,
had read Carter briefing materials stolen from the
When, much later, Will's "debategate" duplicity
came to light, his media colleagues let him off
with a polite scolding. The incident faded from
media memory. Thus, in autumn 1992, when Will
reminisced on ABC's "This Week" about the
1980 Carter-Reagan debate, he didn't mention his
own devious role, and none of his journalistic
buddies in the studio were impolite enough to say
anything about it.
Will has also played fast and loose with ethics
in the midst of other contests for the presidency.
At the media watch group FAIR (where I'm an
associate), senior analyst Steve Rendall
"During the 1996 campaign, Will caught
some criticism for commenting on the
presidential race while his second wife, Mari
Maseng Will, was a senior staffer for the
Dole presidential campaign. Defending a Dole
speech on ABC News (1/28/96), Will, according to
Washingtonian magazine (3/96), 'failed to
mention ... that his wife not only counseled
Dole to give the speech but also helped write
In 2000, Will "suffered another ethical lapse,"
Rendall recounts in Extra!, FAIR's magazine. The
renowned columnist "met with George W. Bush just
before the Republican candidate was to appear on
ABC's 'This Week.' Later, in a column (April
3, 20001), Will admitted that he'd met with Bush to
preview questions, not wanting to 'ambush him with
unfamiliar material.' In the meeting, Will provided
Bush with a 3-by-5 card containing a crucial
question he would later ask the candidate on the
George Will has long been fond of denouncing
moral deficiencies. Typical was this fulmination in
a March 1994 column:
"Taught that their sincerity
legitimized their intentions, the children of
the 1960s grew up convinced they could not do
wrong. Hence the Clinton administration's
genuine bewilderment when accused of ethical
In what can be understood as a case of
psychological projection, Will derisively added:
"It is a theoretical impossibility for people in
'the party of compassion' to behave badly because
good behavior is whatever they do."
During the past three decades, Will -- who chose
to become a syndicated Washington Post
columnist in the early 1970s rather than continue
as a speech writer for Sen. Jesse Helms --
has been fond of commenting on the moral failures
of Black people while depicting programs for equity
as ripoff artistry. In February 1991, for instance,
he wrote: "The rickety structure of affirmative
action, quotas and the rest of the racial spoils
system depends on victimology -- winning for
certain groups the lucrative status of victim."
In subsequent years, not satisfied with his own
very lucrative status, Will made a quiet pact with
corporate wheeler-dealer Conrad Black. When
exposed, Will compounded his malfeasance by
declaring that it was only "my business."
Words that George Will wrote ten years ago now
aptly describe his own stance: "It is a theoretical
impossibility" that he behaved badly. "Good
behavior" is whatever he does.
Nice work if he can get it. And he can.
in 1993: Lunch with George Will: How an
Influential Journalist Distorts the
New York Times:
Friendship and Business Blur in the World of a
Irving, Radical's Diary April 18, 2000: "...
because the Satellite link is off"
Will: Faux historians' political agendas deserve