Washington Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell’s column on Bob Woodward’s and David Broder’s ethics was not as disappointing as I had feared. It’s a sign that the Post is at least going to examine the obvious conflict of interest posed by its employees giving paid speeches to corporate groups with lobbying agendas.
Howell acknowledges that Broder and Woodward broke the Post’s own rules and “did not check with editors on the appearances Silverstein mentioned.” She extracts an apology from Broder, and says the Post “needs an unambiguous, transparent well-known policy on speaking fees and expenses. . . . Fees should be accepted only from educational, professional or other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and politics are not a major focus–with no exceptions.”
But Howell goes very easy on Broder – who has been flagrantly dishonest with his own employer and with Howell–and Woodward, who is allowed to glide away from some very embarrassing matters. Also, Howell deals with only a few speeches by Woodward and Broder, even though Woodward gave dozens and Broder gave roughly a score. I understand that she could not deal with each instance individually (nor did I), but she could have mentioned prominently the fact that the two men, and especially Woodward, are regulars on the talk circuit and that the problem is not restricted to the few speeches she discusses in her column.
Broder first told Howell, “I have never spoken to partisan gatherings in any role other than [that of] a journalist nor to an advocacy group that lobbies Congress or the federal government.” That turned out to be false, as Howell discovered, so Broder came back to say, “I am embarrassed by these mistakes and the embarrassment it has caused the paper.”
Broder told Howell he attended an event at the American Council for Capital Formation, “but did not give a speech.” So apparently someone at the ACCF made up this account of Broder’s speech to the group?
I reported that Broder gave a speech at a meeting of the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors (which paid him, he now admits, $7,000), which was a PAC fundraiser. Howell writes: “Mary Beth Coya, the Realtors’ senior vice president for public and governmental affairs, said the event was not a fundraiser but was attended by elected officials ‘to promote our government affairs programs’.” The event in fact was clearly promoted as a PAC fundraiser. And by the way, “government affairs program” is Washington-talk for lobbying.
I also reported that Broder spoke to the Gartner Healthcare Summit in 2007. “He was advertised as a speaker on an Internet site, but Broder said he canceled the engagement,” Howell reported. That’s possible, but since Broder has been so dishonest about all of this I wouldn’t take it to the bank. (I did note in my earlier posts on this topic that I could not confirm all details, in part because neither Broder nor Woodward replied to requests for comment about their speaking gigs.)
Howell doesn’t mention this—Post reporters, it seems, will call people to ask about their actions but won’t take calls about their own. More outrageous is that Broder specifically denied to Howell that I had sought comment from him (which I know only because Howell told me during a phone conversation), even though I contacted him several times, by phone and email, beginning forty-eight hours before posting the first story.
Meanwhile, Woodward told Howell that he turns down “lots” of speech requests and gives “many” for free. That’s nice, but irrelevant, he’s still broken Post policy by receiving payment for a number of the speeches he did accept. He also called Post policy “fuzzy and ambiguous.” So why didn’t he ask anyone at the paper to clear things up for him before accepting so many speaking appearances for fees that apparently top (easily) $1 million?
Finally, Woodward told Howell “all his speaking fees — which range from $15,000 to $60,000 — go to a foundation he started in the 1990s.” He added, “It’s a straight shot into the foundation that gives money to legitimate charities. I think that’s doing good work.”
St. Woodward can don his halo and gaze in the mirror all he likes, but he really shouldn’t treat Post readers with such contempt. The facts are clear. He reaps significant tax savings by giving the fees to a “charity” that gives away a small fraction of its assets, and by far the biggest beneficiary of his foundation is Sidwell Friends, the elite private school sitting atop a reported $30 million endowment and attended by his own children.
So this is accountability: “We broke the rules, and we’re sorry. But as Post employees, we won’t deign to answer questions from outside reporters; we are accountable only to our internal ombudsman, if bad publicity should prompt her to address such matters.”
Howell reports that the Post’s executive editor, Len Downie, “unearthed a 1995 memo outlining the rules on speeches, but it is not widely known about in the newsroom.” So the Post, it seems, has thirteen-year-old guidelines on paid speeches by employees, but few at the newspaper know about it.
Incidentally, Downie and Howell might want to review old editorials the paper ran vehemently denouncing members of Congress who accept outside speaking fees. In a 1991 editorial, and there were numerous similar ones, the Post complained that the Senate had not subjected itself to a ban on outside speaking and that senators and staffers could still accept up to $2,000—one thirtieth of Woodward’s current top fee—for speaking before “interest groups whose legislative fortunes they control. . . . That’s wrong, and as the Senate discusses the higher standard of conduct it has righteously voted to impose on others, the disparity will be all the more apparent.”
I leave you with one of many comments posted on the Post‘s website by readers of Howell’s column. They get it, even if the Post doesn’t:
Broder said he adheres to “the newspaper’s strict rules on outside activities” and “additional constraints of my own.”
Broder later said he broke the rules on those speeches. He also said he had cleared his speeches with Milton Coleman, deputy managing editor, or Tom Wilkinson, an assistant managing editor, but neither remembered him mentioning them.
Ok, so when Broder was first confronted he lied about the speeches. When he was faced with clear evidence he then admitted that he broke the rules but then tried to blame it on others by saying that he had told them. They of course didn’t remember him saying a word (remind you of Judy Miller at the NYT?). Mr. Broder is obviously a serial liar who thought he could BS his way out of a mess of his own making. So the only question left to ask is—what is the Post going to do about his repeated unethical conduct?