I’m on vacation for a week, but before taking off I wanted to do a final column on the journalists’ speakers circuit I’ve been reporting on recently. The most surprising thing about Bob Woodward’s and David Broder’s well-paid speaking gigs is that all of this comes so soon after big name journalists were embarrassed by the buckraking scandal a short decade back. Despite that scandal, journalists and commentators were soon again accepting corporate-sponsored speaking gigs.
In 2003, the New York Times reported that columnist George Will, in “a column syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group,” had recounted observations from Conrad Black, the media magnate and current inmate. A company controlled by Black had previously paid big fees to Will to serve on a corporate board of advisers.
Will had cited remarks by Black “defending the Bush administration’s stance on Iraq,” saying ”Into this welter of foolishness has waded Conrad Black, a British citizen and member of the House of Lords who is a proprietor of many newspapers.” As the Times reported, when asked “in the interview if he should have told his readers of the payments he had received from Black’s company, Mr. Will said he saw no reason to do so. “My business is my business,” he said. “Got it?”
Not everyone was so sanguine about the Will episode. Michael Getler, then the Post’s ombudsman, wrote in a column that all journalists and commentators “need to be scrupulous in making known any possible conflict of interests, real or likely to be perceived. Sometimes it needs to be done in print, but it certainly must be made known to editors, who can make their own decision before publication and distribution. It shouldn’t be so easy to just say ‘got it?’ when it comes to the conditions for access to the columns of the country’s newspapers and magazines.”
Yet now, just a few years later, Woodward and Broder are found to be in even more embarrassing situations. By the way, Broder has taken fees of as high as $12,000 per speech. You can see here the type of penetrating insights Broder provides in exchange.
(Warning: do not watch while operating heavy machinery.)
It’s clear that there are others at the “Post” that have also been out on the speaking circuit. Perform a Google search and you’ll find that Jeff Birnbaum, the Post’s lobbying reporter, has spoken to a number of groups, including ones that lobby. Last September, he addressed the “board of directors and annual members” of the National Mining Association. Birnbaum delivered a breakfast speech “to NMA’s board of directors in which he previewed factors likely to impact the 2008 presidential and congressional elections,” an Association publication reported. Afterwards, the NMA’s board held a series of visits with members of Congress to discuss important mining community issues such as safety, Mining Law reform and coal’s future role in powering American economic growth.”
Pundits, writers and commentators at other major news organizations also accept questionable gigs. Last spring, David Gregory, NBC’s Chief White House Correspondent, and Charlie Rose were co-hosts for a panel called The Pulse of America, part of a retreat sponsored by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores at the Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, Arizona.
The list of journalists and pundits on the speaking circuit goes on and on.
Greta van Susteren wrote to me in an email a few days ago, and put it well:
It seems to me [that] an online registry for journalists to list the speeches and the compensation would be an easy solution. In my mind it is not so much the paid part but that it is undisclosed. At least if we know some organization paid the journalist (or a colleague in the same news organization), we–the viewers or readers–can make a judgment how much credibility to assign to a report. It may be total credibility, something less, or none at all, but without that info available, the consumer of news is unaware of bias or potential for bias.
What’s most striking to me about the Post’s reaction to the story is the newspaper’s institutional arrogance. Back in the 1980s, the Post led a crusade to bar members of Congress from accepting outside speaking fees. A biting 1988 editorial said:
Yes, the buying of legislative allegiance, or even the appearance of such a thing, is reprehensible and should be banned. But surely no one wants to interrupt the–forgive the expression–free flow of ideas. If a group wants to hear what a member thinks–suppose for a moment it is a group of students somewhere instead of a trade association–surely it is entitled to invite him, and he is entitled to expect it to pay his way. That’s where the nickel-and-diming begins, only it’s not just nickels and dimes. We’re back now to a trade association holding its annual convention under the sun somewhere in the middle of winter. Surely it can fly him out and back and pay his expenses.
Yet these are precisely the sorts of conflicts, and worse, that the Post tolerates in the cases of Woodard and Broder. Meanwhile, neither Woodward nor Broder could be bothered to return calls to me, or to Editor & Publisher, or to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which also sought comment about my stories here.
“Increasingly,” the Post’s Howard Kurtz said just a decade ago, “part of the public anger at the news business comes from this sense of arrogance, this double standard, that it’s okay to go moonlight and take money from corporations if you are a journalist, but you don’t feel you have to talk about it publicly.”
Best of all was reporter Jonathan Weisman, who during an online chat was asked: “Harper‘s is reporting that your colleagues David Broder and Bob Woodward earn five figure honoraria for speaking before business groups. When are you gonna start getting some of that action?”
“I’ve been thinking the same thing!” replied Weisman. “I gotta get me an agent!”
Yeah, and while you’re at it, you get a moral core and a sense of professional ethics, too.
Two other points. First, a reader wrote in to say that I might have exaggerated the benefits Woodward accrues from donating his speaking fees to his personal charity. He pointed out that Woodward’s:
…reported taxable income also goes up by the amount of the fees. In other words a speaking engagement that provides a fee of $10k increases the speaker’s taxable income by $10k from which he/she then deducts $10k for the charitable contribution resulting in a net ‘wash’. If however, the speakers total taxable income from all sources is high enough some deductions are disallowed which could result in some tax even if the speaking income and charitable deduction were the same.
Interesting point, but since Woodward won’t reply to questions the public can’t know what, if anything, he saves from his finagling of the tax code. Even taking the above into consideration, Woodward would still seem to be getting a tax break for his charitable contributions, plus junkets/vacations in the case of speeches he has given at plush resorts, plus the intangible benefit of promoting himself as a “philanthropist” and do-gooder. Now add in that more than half of his charitable contributions in recent years have gone to an elite private school where his kids have attended. Woodward has, indubitably, got himself a sweet deal.
And, finally, Broder and Woodward both have speaking engagements set for later this year. Broder, for example, is set to appear as the keynote speaker this September for the Massachusetts Bankers Association, at the Equinox Resort and Spa. That event will focus on “on vital issues affecting the financial services industry.”
It will be interesting to see if they keep their scheduled dates.