A Mountain Out of a No Hill

Subtitle this piece "Is Maggie Gallagher the Devil?" because that’s how she’ll be played by people who want to discredit the ideas she has expressed in her writing. So is she the devil? No, she’s a writer, but let’s get into the case as presented by the Washington Post‘s Howie Kurtz:

In 2002, syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher repeatedly defended President Bush’s push for a $300 million initiative encouraging marriage as a way of strengthening families.

“The Bush marriage initiative would emphasize the importance of marriage to poor couples” and “educate teens on the value of delaying childbearing until marriage,” she wrote in National Review Online, for example, adding that this could “carry big payoffs down the road for taxpayers and children.”

But Gallagher failed to mention that she had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to help promote the president’s proposal. Her work under the contract, which ran from January through October 2002, included drafting a magazine article for the HHS official overseeing the initiative, writing brochures for the program and conducting a briefing for department officials.

“Did I violate journalistic ethics by not disclosing it?” Gallagher said yesterday. “I don’t know. You tell me.” She said she would have “been happy to tell anyone who called me” about the contract but that “frankly, it never occurred to me” to disclose it.

So her crimes against the prevailing and convenient ethos of those who are now hunting for conservative writers who write for a living include:

  • Drafting a magazine article under contract for a customer
  • Writing brochures under contract for the customer
  • Conducting a briefing for the customer
  • Writing a column about the same topic covered by the work for hire

If Maggie Gallagher is the devil for making a living at writing, then most working writers are.

I’ve worked as a technical writer, during which time I have:

  • Written technical manuals covering a specific technology for my employer
  • Written press releases and marketing material for my employer covering the specific technology
  • Written a white paper for a customer (my former employer) about the technology
  • Written articles about the technology for publication

We’re both guilty of:

  • Learning about a particular subject
  • Writing about a particular subject
  • Writing about the same subject for publications and for business customers

Unfortunately, the slippery slope of evil means that once you become knowledgeable on a subject, more different clients will pay you to write about it. As a writer, your powers and your inner darkness grow hand in hand!

So am I the devil, too? Guilty of payola, plugola, writola, or whateverola? A tool of the vast technology-embracing conspiracy, working at the beck and call of shadowy figures with their own agendum to sell the technology? No, I am a writer, maximizing my knowledge of a particular technology in as many formats and for as many markets as I can. The only difference between Maggie Gallagher and me is that I’ve done my work for technology companies, talking about technology, instead of writing about public policy for magazines and syndicates and for the big customer, The Federal Government.

Her contract price wasn’t out of line for what she did for the government, and I assume that her syndicate and the National Review pays her a salary upon which she and they have agreed for her work. So all sides in this transaction are happy, and the consumers can read what she wrote and evaluate the information the same as anyone who’s read one of my white papers can. Take the contents of the article or leave it.

But because she’s written materials regarding public policy, the rules are different. Instead of making a case for an opposing policy, some people attack the person. Current writer ethics, used as a cudgel, demand a monastic existence from Writers in Papers or Magazines, where the writer cannot work outside the realm of the Reader’s Interest or some other inchoate abstraction. Startled editors and other townspeople with pitchforks and torches want full disclosure, but any writer with any success or with any experience in contract business writing should overwhelm lists of customers, clients, and publications. Sometimes the details of the contracts aren’t the writer’s to disclose.

As I said, I’m fortunate to not have any technical writing contracts in public policy. The rules in technology are different. The technologies and their marketing fluff, white papers, and ideas contend in a marketplace, where the competition doesn’t stoop to knocking the individual authors who write about technology. Instead, the competition develops their own technologies and hires people like me to write marketing fluff, white papers, and other materials for trade shows and for inclusion in trade magazines.

Maggie Gallagher is guilty of being an efficient and a smart writer who has successfully marketed her insight, gathered knowledge, and writing talent to a variety of customers. As a writer, I applaud her success and wish her continued success. I also wish her character assassins would fight ideas with ideas, but recognize that’s unlikely.

(Rant inspired by this post on Outside the Beltway.)

Full disclosure: I have taken sums of money and favors for writing things, but neither from Maggie Gallagher.

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