Plus: Post Ombudsman to Weigh In, Expect Heavy Hand on Scale
The Chronicle of Philanthropy has picked up and advanced my story last week about Bob Woodward’s speaking engagements with various corporate groups and the operations of his charitable foundation.
The Woodward Walsh Foundation distributed $17,555 in grants in 2007 — roughly 1.5 percent of its assets at the beginning of its 2007 tax year. Many of its grantees include private schools such as the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington and universities including Princeton University and the University of Virginia, according to its tax form. The Woodward Walsh Foundation contributed more than $135,000 through grants in 2006. Much of that money, roughly $103,000, went to the Sidwell Friends School.
Sidwell is one of the most elite schools in Washington, where Woodward’s children attended. When Woodward played Celebrity Jeopardy a few years ago, he played for Sidwell.
According to the Foundation Center private foundations must make “qualifying distributions” of a minimum of “5 percent of the average market value of their investment assets in any given fiscal year by the end of the following year.” During four of the past eight tax filing periods, Woodward’s foundation did not give out 5 percent of its assets, but met the letter of this rule with grants issued the following year. It’s hard to see how the Foundation could withstand serious ethical scrutiny, not to mention an IRS audit.
“[I]t is the responsibility of the media in a democracy to inform the public about what their elected officials are doing and how they are handling their responsibilities, but it is equally important for non-political figures to be held accountable for what they do,” Woodward writes on his website. But does this rule apply to Woodward, too?
Meanwhile, the Washington Post ombudsman, Deborah Howell, called me and said she would probably write a column about the issue of Woodward’s and David Broder’s speaking engagements. I can’t wait to see what Howell writes, though she said a few things on the phone that I found odd. Her very first question was to ask me if I knew a person who, she told me, had come to her months ago with similar information to what I had published.
I told Ms. Howell that I wouldn’t answer yes or no, for obvious reasons, and that as a journalist I found it unusual that she was essentially asking me to name a source. (And it’s even more unusual that she would disclose to me the name of someone who presumably approached her in confidence). Howell explained that while she had once been a journalist she now played a different role–though I would think that as a Post writer and ombudsman she would still be a “journalist” and adhere to the most elementary rules of journalism–such as “don’t identify confidential sources, or ask other journalists to do the same.”
Howell also expressed surprise when I told her I had sought comment from Broder before publishing my story. Broder had told her I did not, and it seemed that she was prepared to take his word for it. So I forwarded her the emails I had sent Broder forty-eight and twenty-four hours before publication and informed her that I had called and left him a message on his voicemail as well. I also noted that Editor & Publisher had sought comment from Broder about my story and never heard back either.
I told Howell that I had called Woodward with very little notice before publishing my first short item on him, because I had received word that another reporter was working on a similar story and wanted to get my piece out quickly. (If he had called back I would have published his comments–items on the web can be updated immediately as circumstances warrant.) I also emailed Woodward at the Post shortly after that piece ran and a full day before the second, longer story ran. And I called Woodward at home yesterday and left a message with someone who said he was busy and that she would tell him I had called. He never responded to any of those requests for comment.
Howell told me that she wasn’t even sure if the Post had written guidelines on the question of employees taking speaking fees. How’s that for arrogance on the part of the Post? It must be nice to just make up your own rules on the fly. For years the Post savaged members of Congress for taking big outside speaking fees, but it seems the paper doesn’t care to subject its own reporters to the standards to which it demands politicians be held.
The New York Times does have written rules, which can be found online. “Where permitted by local policy, staff members who deliver speeches may accept fees, honorariums, expense reimbursement and free transportation, but only from educational or other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and political activity are not a major focus [emphasis added],” the rules state. Under those rules, Broder and Woodward would not have been allowed to accept many of the speaking engagements they have accepted these past few years. Nor would those speeches have been allowed under the policies implemented during the last “buckraking” scandal (unless they have been loosened) at ABC, Time, or NBC.
Here are some questions (slightly edited) that I emailed to Howell and which I hope she’ll be addressing:
- Do you see any potential problems with Woodward’s and Broder’s speeches?
- Will they continue to accept such gigs? Or if they have stopped accepting, what prompted them to do so?
- Were Woodward and Broder’s speeches approved by Len Downie or anyone at the Post?
- Do you think perhaps that there should be some sort of public disclosure of speaking gigs and fees?
One last thing: I mentioned before that Woodward has some speaking events set up for later this year. And Broder looks 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.”
This story was reported with the help of Sebastian Jones.