Washington Babylon — June 13, 2008, 11:19 am

Former NPR Ombudsman On Journalists and Speaking Gigs

Jeffrey Dvorkin, Executive Director of Journalism at The Real News Network and a former NPR Ombudsman, writes about my recent stories on David Broder and Bob Woodward:

Good point on journalists and speaking fees. When I was NPR’s Ombudsman, a few years ago, I was approached by a speakers’ bureau. I was asked if I would speak to the annual general meeting of Raytheon, the defense contractor. The agent for the speakers’ bureau said I would be flown to Los Angeles (first class, of course), put up in a fancy hotel and paid $15,000 (“Please keep it short. No more than 15-20 minutes.”). The topic: “On Being a News Ombudsman.”

Of course I agreed to do it because I think the role of the ombuds is so critical to the well-being of journalism. But I told them that I wouldn’t take their money: I had a small budget for outreach and would book my own travel (economy fare), stay at a mid-range hotel (where NPR gets a reduced corporate rate) and I would not take the speaking fee, but I would do it pro bono. The agency withdrew the offer (probably because they wouldn’t get a commission) and I never heard from them, or Raytheon again.

I have received one letter of dissent, from Frederic Golden:

I’ve never quite understood the hullabaloo over speaking invitations to journalists. When I was writing about science and medicine for TIME, I often got asked to speak before groups involved with issues I was covering. Because these talks were frequently an hour or longer, required significant travel time and serious preparation, including a scripted speech, I naturally accepted remuneration for my effort. And why not? The speeches required research and thought and, let’s not forget, my connection with a national magazine was undoubtedly a valuable drawing card for the sponsors. The important question is: did these appearances skew my subsequent reporting or writing? Despite what Mr. Bradlee says, I don’t think so. Rather than corrupting, the contacts I made during these appearances often led to a fuller understanding and deeper insights into the subjects I was covering and, at least once or twice, a beat on upcoming news event. It doesn’t make sense to keep journalists in an isolation booth.

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