Confessions of a Payola Pundit

Confessions of a Payola Pundit
Confessions of a Payola Pundit

By Ian Williams

NEW YORK, February 23, 2005 — In 1985, I won the Liverpool Press Club prize for Byline Mania. I had just made the Centerfold in the Baptist Times. I have gone on from strength to strength. Anyone who is prepared to pay for what I write, I write for them.

I began this year with a long piece (not the centerfold) in Penthouse, on how the U.S. shortchanges its military personnel. I have made the Rwanda Times in the last year, and a year ago discovered myself gracing the op-ed page of the Jamaica Gleaner. I have of course written several pieces for the Nation, and lots more for lots of other people across the world.

And while I derive a lot of fun from writing, I would go a long way with Dr. Johnson, “No one but a fool wrote except for money.” He was writing before academics and tenure of course.

So when I was asked if I had written stuff for the UN, I said, “Sure!” After all, the would-be Pulitzer prize winner asking, Cliff Kincaid of the so-called Accuracy In Media, had “discovered” this from my website. “How much were you paid?” he asked.

With more accuracy than usual, Kincaid recounted, “When AIM asked Ian Williams for details about his U.N. compensation, he responded, in part: ‘I am happy to share the details of my other income with you if you will provide in return a complete list of donors to your various organizations and employers, with their names, addresses and affiliations, and your considered opinion on whether they would continue to finance you if you suddenly took a more objective and less hostile attitude to the United Nations.'”

He headed this “Stonewall.”

There were various other possible answers, like “since when was the right deputized by the IRS?” Another, after his article appeared, would have been, “How do you get the Accuracy in your name, since your article quotes from an interview with Stephanie Dujarric, a spokeswoman for Kofi Annan.” When I called to do some retrospective fact checking, Stephane Dujarric pointed out that he had not changed his sex.

In fact, Kincaid has yet to take up my invitation for a free exchange of statistics. But the last figures I saw, AIM had garnered over $3.5 million from ultraconservative foundations, mostly from the Scaife Family. That was two years ago, but at the annual rate of $350,000 from this rightist foundation alone, one could assume that it is now over $4 million.

Kincaid’s article compared me with Armstrong Williams, who was paid $250,000 under the table, without disclosure, of U.S. tax payers’ money specifically to peddle a partisan Republican policy under the guise of objective editorial content.

A week later, Bill O’Reilly asked the same question but in much saner way. “What’s the difference between you and Armstrong Williams?” I came clean, and answered, “$249,850.” I had just done my tax returns and discovered that my entire income from the whole UN system in 2004 was $150 — for interviewing Hans Blix on United Nations Television.

Now $150 does not buy a lot of loyalty, although I must admit that in my present straitened circumstances, with a young family to support, book to write etc, $250,000 may be getting close to my price. But sadly the question has never been put to the test. It almost was. In 1999 an old-style Republican acquaintance did take me to lunch and asked, “You used to write speeches for Neil Kinnock. How would you like to write them for W?”

I replied that as long as W was happy with speeches supporting a British style National Health Service and a multilateral approach to foreign affairs, I would be happy to provide them. They never got back to me.

But that sums up my credo. I will pretty much write for anyone who pays me, as long they do not dictate what I write. Although I charge much more for boring commissions. And I will hold up my list of exposes of the UN for everything from sexual harassment, pandering to big powers, conniving with the CIA, and covering up the bronze elephant’s organ in the gardens (honest!) next to any other journalist. But when the UN is maligned out of conservative malice and prejudice, then I will spring to its defense.

This is something that the right does not seem to get. They are the last Leninists on Earth, eagerly looking for any signs of anyone straying off their message regardless of truth or facts. For AIM and its pals in the Blogosphere over the right event horizon, no one could possibly say a good word for the UN unless bribed to do so, or on a seditious mission. (Presumably George W. Bush was only kidding when he said he supported the organization. I am sure that AIM, however, would not accuse the President of lying. So they just don’t mention it.)

As part of his fact-lite screed, Kincaid roped in the UN Correspondents Association Annual Awards, which give out prizes that are donated by the UN Foundation and Soros — which, shock horror, support the UN. Presumably there is considerably less shock and horror attached to the millions from Foundations like Scaife — which vilify the UN.

Kincaid quoted an invented, or lying, anonymous UN correspondent who claimed he had been told his entry had been rejected for being insufficiently supportive of the UN. In fact the Awards not only specifically invite investigative work, over the years they have mostly gone to exposes of the UN’s failings. Beginning with a BBC series attacking the UN over Bosnia, on to one of this year’s entries, which criticized the organization for its inaction over East Timor, winners have consistently held the UN up to its own declared standards. In the interests of disclosure, Danny Schechter and Rory O’Connor of MediaChannel were among our earliest awardees.

Recent winners have included the Wall Street Journal, twice, the Washington Times, the Murdoch-owned London Times, and the Washington Post for an investigation of UN police involvement in sex trafficking in Bosnia.

Without prejudging the issue, however, I rather suspect that the chances of AIM getting an UNCA Award for UN coverage are on a par with the Nation, or indeed UNCA, winning a grant from the Scaife Foundation. The Nation, like the winners of the UNCA Awards over the years, has fact checkers, which disqualifies us from conservative faith based awards. While AIM clearly does not, which disqualifies it from UNCA Awards. And Scaife would not take the risk of prize money going to fact-based winners which occasionally support the UN Charter.

But if Scaife should see the light and decide to send me a $350,000 check, I will gladly accept it — as long as I can write what I want to write — which I can promise will be fact-based not faith-based.

— Ian Williams is a well-known international journalist. He writes for The Nation and many other outlets including

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