By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A non-disclosure disclosure

The Boston Globe today runs an op-ed piece urging passage of a free-trade agreement with Colombia. The piece, by Marc Grossman, is reasoned and nuanced, celebrating Colombia’s rescue of 15 hostages last week while acknowledging that the government of President Álvaro Uribe must continue to improve its human-rights record.

But there’s a hidden agenda. The tagline states that Grossman is a vice chairman of the Cohen Group, and is a former undersecretary of state. That’s a pretty weak disclosure. In fact, a little Googling reveals that the Cohen Group, founded by former secretary of defense William Cohen, helps private clients do business internationally. Here’s the lowdown, taken directly from the Cohen Group’s Web site:

The Cohen Group (TCG) assists clients to navigate the political and business landscape in Latin America.

Secretary Cohen and TCG principals have developed and maintain strong ties with political, business, military, and media officials throughout Latin America that can help to accomplish client business objectives in the region. Our understanding of and relationships in the region have enabled TCG to assist numerous firms in the U.S., Spain and elsewhere in Europe that have business interests in Latin America….

Ambassador Marc Grossman, as Under Secretary of State until 2005, worked directly with leaders from across the region on a broad range of political, economic and security issues. For his efforts to promote democracy and fight narcoterrorism in Colombia, he was awarded Colombia’s highest civilian honor, the Order of San Carlos.

An opinion piece such as Grossman’s is worthless if it’s not independent. The Cohen Group would benefit mightily from a free-trade deal with Colombia. Surely there are experts who could have made the case as effectively as Grossman without being tainted by their future earnings being tied up in the outcome of the free-trade debate.

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  1. Art Kane

    Grossman’s piece is not “worthless”, it’s merely slanted. Wish I had a nickel for every OpEd piece that had a P.O.V. directly tied to the writer’s pecuniary interests; it’s all but the norm for the genre. The problem of course is with the Globe and its pitifully inadequate non-disclosure disclosure. I don’t mind reading a self-serving essay as long as I am fully informed (thank you, Dan) as to where the writer is coming from.

  2. Rich

    An opinion piece such as Grossman’s is worthless if it’s not independent. Haven’t reached your daily ad hominem quota yet, Kennedy?If a writer’s arguments are correct, they are correct regardless of who he’s working for. If they are incorrect, they are incorrect no matter how “independent” he may be.Trashing what someone said because of who he works for is disgusting and lazy. Counter his arguments with actual, you know, arguments.

  3. Steve

    Rich, I think you’re missing the point. The average newspaper reader probably knows little about the nuances of issues like free-trade with Colombia. You read a piece like this to be informed. But if the person writing the article can profit by a particular political decision, the reader deserves to know that. It doesn’t invalidate the writer’s opinions, so I’ll agree with yours and Art’s quibble with “worthless”, but it’s something the reader needs to make an informed judgment on the article.I think Dan wasn’t arguing with the writer. He was criticizing the Globe op-ed editor for providing insufficient disclosure.

  4. michael

    i think you’re right. This happens a lot more than one would think. Regularly local newspapers print op/eds that would appear to be a voice of a local person, but are actually written by people who aren’t even from the same region! To think this op/ed wasn’t written with the Cohen Group in mind is foolish.

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Steve: Thank you. Exactly. Maybe “worthless” overstates it, but the views of a paid lobbyist for business interests in Colombia come pretty close — especially since that wasn’t disclosed.

  6. Anonymous

    I didn’t read the piece, and probably won’t. But I think the only issue here was the disclosure. It should have been a little more informative, something like “Grossman is a vice chairman of the Cohen Group, which helps private clients do business internationally.”

  7. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 10:14: A fair disclosure would have gone something like this: Marc Grossman is a lobbyist for corporations that do business in Colombia. And that wouldn’t have passed the laugh test. The fact is, this column wouldn’t have been published with proper disclosure, because no one would have taken it seriously.

  8. Neil

    A one-sentence disclosure seems standard practice at the Globe. This one gives you just enough to follow the agenda trail if you were so inclined. Though few would, the point is that you could, as Dan did, I suppose.How does disclosure work anyway? Is the statement tacked on by the editors, sight unseen by the author? Or is it negotiated with the author? Or even, simply supplied by the author and not vetted by the paper.Dan, given a one-sentence limit, what would you propose for a disclore? How about, “…the Cohen Group, which is paid by the govt. of Colombia to represent its interests.” Ha–that would be great! But I bet Grossman wouldn’t go for it.Indeed, it shouldn’t be hard to find quality disinterested op-ed sources. In this case, you wonder who paid whom–did the Globe pay Grossman, or vice versa. If the former, it’s a double-dip for him! Though fee for op-ed is small, it’s always clever to be paid twice for the same work. Maybe the Globe is timid about real disclosure for fear of scaring away other op-ed writers. As if there’s some shortage. Strange.

  9. Neil

    Ah I just noticed anon beat me to asking Dan what he’d put for a disclosure, and what Dan you’d say. Should have refreshed the comments page before submitting.Anyway I agree, a full disclosure would have rendered the piece laughable.

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