A third federal agency has admitted it paid a journalist to write favorable stories about its work.
Documents released by the Agriculture Department show it paid a freelance writer $9,375 in 2003 to “research and write articles for hunting and fishing magazines describing the benefits of NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) programs.”
Three articles by the writer, Dave Smith, appeared late last year in two magazines aimed at hunting and fishing enthusiasts: Outdoor Oklahoma, published by that state’s Department of Wildlife Conservation, and Washington-Oregon Game & Fish, published by Primedia.
Neither identified Smith as having been paid by the government. The stories focused on how money from a 2002 agricultural subsidy bill had been used to help preserve wetlands that hunting and fishing enthusiasts enjoy in Oklahoma and the Northwest.
Smith, a biologist by profession who now works for the NRCS in Montana, said Tuesday that the magazines knew he’d been paid by the Agriculture Department. “I clearly spelled out to them,” in writing, “that I’d been hired to do this,” he said. He said the magazines did not pay him for the articles. “I knew I couldn’t be paid by them” since he’d already been compensated, Smith said.
Smith said he did not mention in the stories that he had been paid by NRCS. “I’d already explained to the magazines what the deal was and I thought they would take care of it from there,” he said.
Ken Dunwoody, editor of Primedia’s 31 Game & Fish magazines, said Tuesday he did not know what Smith told the company, but if other editors knew Smith had been paid by the government, it was a mistake not to have told readers. “We may have failed to do things as we should have,” Dunwoody said. He added that “there was no political agenda” in not identifying the Agriculture Department’s role in the story, he said.
The contract came to light in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from USA Todday and other media. The department posted the contract on its Web site ( www.usda.gov). The admission follows revelations this year that:
•The Education Department paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to help promote its No Child Left Behind program in 2003 and 2004.
•The Health and Human Services Department paid two columnists more than $40,000 to write brochures and train some of its staff — payments the columnists did not disclose to their readers.
Those disclosures led some Democrats, including Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Rep. George Miller of California, to accuse the Bush administration of paying for propaganda, which would be illegal. President Bush has ordered Cabinet secretaries to end such payments to journalists and not enter into similar contracts.
David Gagner, chief of staff at the conservation service, said Tuesday that his agency has hired freelance writers because it gets “lots of requests from publications for help in writing stories.”
He said in the wake of the disclosures about Williams and other commentators having been paid by the government, his agency wants stories written on its behalf to be clearly identified as having been paid for by the federal government.