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Thursday, November 18, 2004

What About the Feds with Agendas like NBC's 'Activist' Cameraman?

Kevin Sites, the NBC cameraman who incited a worldwide flap with his filming of a Marine administering a defensive coup de grace to a Fallujah insurgent, is being ripped here and defended here. Whatever one thinks about the propriety of Sites' ideological orientation or of his actions in filming the incident, there is another significant aspect to NBC's broadcast of the film.

Journalists' political affiliations are mostly kept in the background, but there is little doubt those affiliations do have some influence on their editing and reporting. The Blogosphere is probably in the process of making it impossible to conceal such affiliations much longer, just as OpenSecrets.org and other web sites that post campaign contribution data are making it impossible to hide journalists' donations to candidates.

But there is a similar situation in the federal government where thousands of members of the 1.8 million career federal civil service are devoted members of ideological advocacy groups and one has to wonder how many of them use their public employment to advance the agendas of those groups. I speak from experience in this area, as I was Assistant Director for Public Affairs at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in the early eighties when the decision was made to admit ideological advocacy groups to the Combined Federal Campaign, the federal government's annual in-house charitable appeal. As a result of that decision, a wide range of mostly liberal and fewer conservative ideological advocacy groups were admitted. Employee contributions are deducted from their paychecks by the government and sent to the recipient organizations. You can read the current list of CFC participants here.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with federal employees contributing to whatever charitable group they desire. Almost from the outset of their participation in the CFC, though, many of the ideological advocacy groups received and thereafter became dependent upon significant amounts of money contributed by federal civil servants. Among the questions thus raised by the NBC camerman flap is if, for example, the EPA employee who gives $1,000 to Earth Share is also advocating within the agency's regulatory processes on behalf of some or all of the agendas of the environmental groups included in that network. The same question could apply to the enthusiastic NRA backer in the Treasury Department's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms operation. Anybody with experience in federal regulatory compliance knows how critical such regs are to operation of the government and how an otherwise obscure change here or there can cost regulated industries hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Perhaps federal employees should be required to disclose donations to ideological advocacy groups that do business with their employing agencies. With or without such a requirement, the Blogosphere could be invaluable in surfacing such conflicts of interest when and if they exist.