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[Washington Babylon]

More on the New Buckraking


Plus: How Bob Woodward and Tim Russert Stack Up

Deborah Howell, the Post’s ombudsman (or “permanent cheerleader,” as mediabistro.com calls her) has confirmed to me that she will this weekend be writing about David Broder’s and Bob Woodward’s speaking fees. For reasons I’ve previously mentioned, and because the obvious conflict of interest posed by Broder and Woodward’s speaking fees was brought to Howell’s attention many months ago and she never publicly addressed it, I don’t have high hopes for her column. (Not to mention the fact that, however Howell dealt with the matter, Broder and Woodward apparently still accept speaking invitations, and that the Post as an institution is generally as arrogant, unaccountable, and free of self-doubt as Congress.)

So to summarize: Broder and Woodward have both given speeches to big corporate trade groups–some with major lobbying interests–often as part of events held at spas and resorts. Broder even headlined a political fundraiser for a group of realtors. Woodward appears to give the bulk of his speaking fees to his personal foundation, but that “charity” gives away a tiny fraction of its assets–skirting IRS regulations–and much of the money goes to one of the most elite private schools in Washington, which Woodward’s own kids attended. Neither Woodward nor Broder replied to requests for comment, an odd strategy for journalists.

Let’s compare the past three years’ worth of the public filings of Woodward’s foundation against those of the foundation of Tim Russert. Both took in roughly $1.15 million, most of it, it seems, from Woodward and Russert, respectively. The Russert Family Foundation donated about $630,000 over those years to dozens of charities, including some $226,000 to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Washington. The Woodward Walsh Foundation gave a dozen or so charities about $190,000, of which about 60 percent went to Sidwell Friends School, whose endowment is reported to be in the neighborhood of $30 million.

And a few reminders: Back in 1994, Broder said, “The murky area, the ones where I need to check are the ones where I get an invitation from a business group. . . . For example, I’m doing a lot of stuff on health care so I would not speak to any group that’s a major player in the health care thing.” Now Broder speaks before health-care groups; in one instance he wrote a column on health care whose publication coincided almost perfectly with his speech to a Blue Cross group. As for Woodward, he speaks before insurance groups, including a 2005 appearance before the American Council of Life Insurers, “a unified voice on issues from retirement security to taxes to international trade. We advocate the shared interests of our member companies and their policyholders before federal and state legislators, regulators, and courts.”

As I noted in a previous post, back in 1995, Ben Bradlee said of journalists making big bucks on the lecture circuit: “I wish it would go away. I don’t like it. I think it’s corrupting. If the Insurance Institute of America, if there is such a thing, pays you $10,000 to make a speech, don’t tell me you haven’t been corrupted. You can say you haven’t and you can say you will attack insurance issues in the same way, but you won’t. You can’t.”

“The Washington Post Standards and Ethics”, unless loosened since 1999, state: “This newspaper is pledged to avoid conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest, wherever and whenever possible. We have adopted stringent policies on these issues, conscious that they may be more restrictive than is customary in the world of private business.”

How many other Post employees give speeches, what do they get paid, and who is paying them? The public doesn’t know, because the Post apparently doesn’t demand that this information be openly disclosed, which Greta van Susteren suggests. (We do know that ethics guru Howard Kurtz is represented by a speakers’ bureau and talks on such topics as “The Self-Inflicted Wounds of the News Business.” It is interesting given the Post’s constant calls for accountability on the part of politicians, that it is so entirely unaccountable in the case of its own reporters and pundits.)

Footnote: check out this 2000 Harper’s essay by Renata Adler, “A Court of No Appeal: How one obscure sentence upset the New York Times.”

Barringer’s article was, in its way, exemplary. In my “offhanded evisceration of various literati,” she reported, not many people had noticed “Ms. Adler’s drive-by assault on the late Judge Sirica.” She deplored the lack of “any evidence” and managed to convey her conviction that none existed. Barringer’s own “sources,” on the other hand, were the following: Jack Sirica (whom she did not identify as a Newsday reporter); John F. Stacks, who co-wrote Judge Sirica’s autobiography (and who said Sirica “didn’t have the imagination to be anything other than absolutely straight all his life”); “those who have read just about all the books on Watergate” and “those most steeped in Watergate lore” (whether these “those” were co-extensive was not clear); two lawyers, who confirmed that “the dead cannot sue for libel”; an editor, who did not claim to know either me or anything about Sirica, who “explained” (not, for Barringer, “said”), in four paragraphs of a bizarre fantasy, what I must have said to my editor and he to me (”It is, ‘Love me, love my book.’ If that’s what she wants to say…it’s either do the book or don’t do it”); and Bob Woodward, co-author of All the President’s Men, who “absolutely never heard, smelled, saw or found any remote suggestion” that Sirica had ever had “any connection” to organized crime.

An impressive roster, in a way. I had once, as it happened, unfavorably reviewed, on the front page of The New York Times Book Review itself, a book by Woodward, but he was certainly the most impressive of Barringer’s sources in this piece. Woodward could, of course, have crept into Judge Sirica’s hospital room and elicited from him on his deathbed the same sort of “nod” he claimed to have elicited from CIA director William Casey on his deathbed, and then claimed, as he did with Casey, that to divulge even the time of this alleged hospital visit would jeopardize his source. And when asked, as he was in an interview, what color pajamas the patient was wearing, he could, as he did in the instance of Casey, express a degree of outrage worthy of the threat such a question poses to the journalist’s entire vocation. That is evidently not a kind of sourcing that raises questions for a Media correspondent at the Times.

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