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annals of communications

fee speech

Who, besides members of Congress, accepts money from special interests? Often, the journalists most eager to sneer at politicians for it.

by ken auletta

The initial hint of anger from twenty-five or so members of the House Democratic leadership came on an hour-and-a-quarter-long bus ride from Washington to Airlie House, in rural Virginia, one morning last January. They had been asked by the Majority Leader, Richard A. Gephardt, of Missouri, to attend a two-day retreat for the Democratic Message Group, and as the bus rolled southwest the convivial smiles faded. The members of the group began to complain that their message was getting strangled, and they blamed the media. By that afternoon, when the Democrats gathered for the first of five panels composed of both partisans and what were advertised as "guest analysts, not partisan advisers," the complaints were growing louder. The most prominent Democrats in the House--Gephardt; the Majority Whip, David E. Bonior, of Michigan; the current Appropriations Committee chairman, David R. Obey, of Wisconsin; the Democratic Congressional Campaign chairman, Vic Fazio, of California; Rosa L. DeLauro, of Connecticut, who is a friend of President Clinton's; and about twenty others--expressed a common grievance: public figures are victims of a powerful and cynical press corps. A few complained of what they saw as the ethical obtuseness of Sam Donaldson, of ABC, angrily noting that, just four days earlier, "PrimeTime Live," the program that Donaldson co-anchors, had attacked the Independent Insurance Agents of America for treating con-gressional staff people to a Key West junket. Yet several months earlier the same insurance group had paid Donaldson a thirty-thousand-dollar lec-ture fee.

By four-thirty, when the third panel, ostensibly devoted to the changing role of the media, was set to begin, the Democrats could no longer contain their rage, lumping the press into a single, stereotypical category--you--the same way they complained that the press lumped together all members of Congress.

They kept returning to Donaldson's lecture fees and his public defense that it was ethically acceptable for him to receive fees because he was a private citi-zen, not an elected official. The Airlie House meeting was off the record, but in a later interview Representative Obey recalled having said of journalists, "What I find most offensive lately is that we get the sanctimonious-Sam defense: 'We're different because we don't write the laws.' Well, they have a hell of a lot more power than I do to affect the laws written."

Representative Robert G. Torricelli, of New Jersey, recalled having said, "What startles many people is to hear television commentators make paid speeches to interest groups and then see them on television commenting on those issues. It's kind of a direct conflict of interest. If it happened in government, it would not be permitted." Torricelli, who has been criticized for realizing a sixty-nine-thousand-dollar profit on a New Jersey savings-and-loan after its chairman advised him to make a timely investment in its stock, says he doesn't understand why journalists don't receive the same scrutiny that people in Congress do. Torricelli brought up an idea that had been discussed at the retreat and that he wanted to explore: federal regulations requiring members of the press to disclose outside income--and most particularly television journalists, whose stations are licensed by the government. He said that he would like to see congressional hearings on the matter, and added, "You'd get the votes if you did the hearings. I predict that in the next couple of Congresses you'll get the hearings."

Gephardt is dubious about the legality of compelling press disclosure of outside income, but one thing he is sure about is the anger against the media which is rising within Congress. "Most of us work for more than money," he told me. "We work for self-image. And Congress's self-image has suffered, because, members think, journalistic ethics and standards are not as good as they used to be."

The press panel went on for nearly three hours, long past the designated cocktail hour of six. The congressmen directed their anger at both Brian Lamb, the C-SPAN chairman, and me--we were the two press representatives on the panel--and cited a number of instances of what they considered reportorial abuse. The question that recurred most often was this: Why won't journalists disclose the income they receive from those with special interests?

IT is a fair question to ask journalists, who often act as judges of others' character. Over the summer, I asked it of more than fifty prominent media people, or perhaps a fifth of what can fairly be called the media elite--those journalists who, largely on account of television appearances, have a kind of fame similar to that of actors. Not surprisingly, most responded to the question at least as defensively as any politician would. Some of them had raised an eyebrow when President Clinton said he couldn't recall ten- or fifteen-year-old details about Whitewater. Yet many of those I spoke to could not remember where they had given a speech just months ago. And many of them, while they were unequivocal in their commentary on public figures and public issues, seemed eager to dwell on the complexities and nuances of their own outside speaking.

Sam Donaldson, whose annual earnings at ABC are about two million dollars, was forthcoming about his paid speeches: in June, he said that he had given three paid speeches so far this year and had two more scheduled. He would not confirm a report that he gets a lecture fee of as much as thirty thousand dollars. On being asked to identify the three groups he had spoken to, Donaldson--who on the March 27th edition of the Sunday-morning show "This Week with David Brinkley" had ridiculed President Clinton for not remembering that he had once lent twenty thousand dollars to his mother--said he couldn't remember. Then he took a minute to call up the information from his computer. He said that he had spoken at an I.B.M. convention in Palm Springs, to a group of public-information officers, and to the National Association of Retail Druggists. "If I hadn't consulted my computerized date book, I couldn't have told you that I spoke to the National Association of Retail Druggists," he said. "I don't remember these things."

What would Donaldson say to members of Congress who suggest that, like them, he is not strictly a private individual and should make full disclosure of his income from groups that seek to influence legislation?

"First, I don't make laws that govern an industry," he said. "Second, people hire me because they think of me as a celebrity; they believe their members or the people in the audience will be impressed." He went on, "Can you say the same thing about a member of Congress who doesn't even speak--who is hired, in a sense, to go down and play tennis? What is the motive of the group that pays for that?" He paused and then answered his own question: "Their motive, whether they are subtle about it or not, is to make friends with you because they hope that you will be a friend of theirs when it comes time to decide about millions of dollars. Their motive in inviting me is not to make friends with me."

Would he concede that there might be at least an appearance of conflict when he takes money from groups with a stake in, say, health issues?

Donaldson said, "At some point, the issue is: What is the evidence? I believe it's not the appearance of impropriety that's the problem. It's impropriety." Still, Donaldson did concede that he was rethinking his position; and he was aware that his bosses at ABC News were reconsidering their relaxed policy.

Indeed, one of Donaldson's bosses--Paul Friedman, the executive vice-president for news--told me he agreed with the notion that on-air correspondents are not private citizens. "People like Sam have influence that far exceeds that of individual congressmen," Friedman said, echoing Representative Obey's point. "We always worry that lobbyists get special 'access' to members of government. We should also worry that the public might get the idea that special-interest groups are paying for special 'access' to correspondents who talk to millions of Americans."

UNLIKE Donaldson, who does not duck questions, some commentators chose to say nothing about their lecturing. The syndicated columnist George Will, who appears weekly as a commentator on the Brinkley show, said through an assistant, "We are just in the middle of book production here. Mr. Will is not talking much to anyone." Will is paid twelve thousand five hundred dollars a speech, Alicia C. Shepard reports in a superb article in the May issue of the American Journalism Review.

ABC's Cokie Roberts, who, according to an ABC official, earns between five and six hundred thousand dollars annually as a Washington correspondent and is a regular commentator on the Brinkley show in addition to her duties on National Public Radio, also seems to have a third job, as a paid speaker. Among ABC correspondents who regularly moonlight as speakers, Roberts ranks No. 1. A person who is in a position to know estimates that she earned more than three hundred thousand dollars for speaking appearances in 1993. Last winter, a couple of weeks after the Donaldson-"PrimeTime" incident, she asked the Group Health Association of America, before whom she was to speak in mid-February, to donate her reported twenty-thousand-dollar fee to charity. Roberts did not return three phone calls--which suggests that she expects an openness from the Clinton Administration that she rejects for herself. On that March 27th Brinkley show, she described the Administration's behavior concerning Whitewater this way: "All of this now starts to look like they are covering something up."

Brit Hume, the senior ABC White House correspondent, earns about what Roberts does, and is said to trail only Roberts and Donaldson at ABC in lecture earnings. This could not be confirmed by Hume, for he did not return calls.

At CNN, the principal anchor, Bernard Shaw, also declined to be interviewed, and so did three of the loudest critics of Congress and the Clinton Administration: the conservative commentator John McLaughlin, who now takes his "McLaughlin Group" on the road to do a rump version of the show live, often before business groups; and the alternating conservative co-hosts of "Crossfire," Pat Buchanan and John Sununu.

DAVID BRINKLEY did respond to questions, but not about his speaking income. Like Donaldson and others, he rejected the notion that he was a public figure. Asked what he would say to the question posed by members of Congress at the retreat, Brinkley replied, "It's a specious argument. We are private citizens. We work in the private marketplace. They do not."

And if a member of Congress asked about his speaking fee, which is reported to be eighteen thousand dollars?

"I would tell him it's none of his business," Brinkley said. "I don't feel that I have the right to ask him everything he does in his private life."

The syndicated columnist and television regular Robert Novak, who speaks more frequently than Brinkley, also considers himself a private citizen when it comes to the matter of income disclosure. "I'm not going to tell you how many speeches I do and what my fee is," he said politely. Novak, who has been writing a syndicated column for thirty-one years, is highly visible each weekend on CNN as the co-host of the "Evans & Novak" interview program and as a regular on "The Capital Gang."

What would Novak say to a member of Congress who maintained that he was a quasi-public figure and should be willing to disclose his income from speeches?

"I'm a totally private person," he said. "Anyone who doesn't like me doesn't have to read me. These people, in exchange for power--I have none--they have sacrificed privacy."

In fact, Novak does seem to view his privacy as less than total; he won't accept fees from partisan political groups, and, as a frequent critic of the Israeli government, he will not take fees from Arab-American groups, for fear of creating an appearance of a conflict of interest. Unlike most private citizens, Novak, and most other journalists, will not sign petitions, or donate money to political candidates, or join protest marches.

Colleagues have criticized Novak and Rowland Evans for organizing twice-a-year forums--as they have since 1971--to which they invite between seventy-five and a hundred and twenty-five subscribers to their newsletter, many of whom are business and financial analysts. Those attending pay hundreds of dollars--Novak refuses to say how much--for the privilege of listening to public officials speak and answer questions off the record. "You talk about conflicts of interest!" exclaimed Jack Nelson, the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief. "It is wrong to have government officials come to speak to businessmen and you make money off of it."

Mark Shields, who writes a syndicated column and is the moderator of "The Capital Gang" and a regular commentator on "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," is a busy paid lecturer. Asked how much he earned from speeches last year, he said, "I haven't even totalled it up." Shields said he probably gives one paid speech a week, adding, "I don't want, for personal reasons, to get into specifics."

Michael Kinsley, who is the liberal co-host of "Crossfire," an essayist for The New Republic and Time, and a contributor to The New Yorker, is also reluctant to be specific. "I'm in the worst of all possible positions," he said. "I do only a little of it. But I can't claim to be a virgin." Kinsley said he appeared about once every two months, but he wouldn't say what groups he spoke to or how much he was paid. "I'm going to do a bit more," he said. "I do staged debates--mini 'Crossfire's--before business groups. If everyone disclosed, I would."

The New Republic's White House correspondent, Fred Barnes, who is a regular on "The McLaughlin Group" and appears on "CBS This Morning" as a political commentator, speaks more often than Kinsley, giving thirty or forty paid speeches a year, he said, including the "McLaughlin" road show. How would Barnes respond to the question posed by members of Congress?

"They're elected officials," he said. "I'm not an elected official. I'm not in government. I don't deal with taxpayers' money."

Barnes's "McLaughlin" colleague Morton M. Kondracke is the executive editor of Roll Call, which covers Congress. Kondracke said that he gave about thirty-six paid speeches annually, but he would not identify the sponsors or disclose his fee. He believes that columnists have fewer constraints on their speechmaking than so-called objective reporters, since columnists freely expose their opinions.

Gloria Borger, a U.S. News & World Report columnist and a frequent "Washington Week in Review" panelist, discloses her income from speeches, but only to her employer. Borger said she gave one or two paid speeches a month, but she wouldn't reveal her fee. "I'm not an elected official," she said.

Like Borger, Wolf Blitzer, CNN's senior White House correspondent, said that he told his news organization about any speeches he made. How many speeches did he make in the last year?

"I would guess four or five," he said, and repeated that each one was cleared through his bureau chief.

What would Blitzer say to a member of Congress who asked how much he made speaking and from which groups?

"I would tell him 'None of your business,' " Blitzer said.

Two other network chief White House correspondents--NBC's Andrea Mitchell and CBS's Rita Braver--also do little speaking. "I make few speeches," Mitchell said. "Maybe ten a year. Maybe six or seven a year. I'm very careful about not speaking to groups that involve issues I cover." She declined to say how much she earned. For Braver, the issue was moot. "I don't think I did any," she said, referring to paid speeches in the past year.

ABC's "PrimeTime Live" correspondent Chris Wallace, who has done several investigative pieces on corporate-sponsored congressional junkets, said he made four or five paid speeches last year. "I don't know exactly," he said. Could he remember his fee?

"I wouldn't say," he replied.

Did he speak to business groups?

"I'm trying to remember the spe-cific groups," he said, and then went on, "One was the Business Council of Canada. Yes, I do speak to business groups."

So what is the difference between Chris Wallace and members of Congress who accept paid junkets?

"I'm a private citizen," he said. "I have no control over public funds. I don't make public policy."

Why did Wallace think that he was invited to speak before business groups?

"They book me because they feel somehow that it adds a little excitement or lustre to their event," he said. He has been giving speeches since 1980, he said, and "never once has any group called me afterward and asked me any favor in coverage."

But isn't that what public officials usually say when Wallace corners them about a junket?

Those who underwrite congressional junkets are seeking "access" and "influence," he said, but the people who hire him to make a speech are seeking "entertainment." When I mentioned Wallace's remarks to Norman Pearlstine, the former executive editor of the Wall Street Journal, he said, "By that argument, we ought not to distinguish between news and entertainment, and we ought to merge news into entertainment."

ABC's political and media analyst Jeff Greenfield makes a "rough guess" that he gives fifteen paid speeches a year, many in the form of panels he moderates before various media groups--cable conventions, newspaper or magazine groups, broadcasting and marketing associations--that are concerned with subjects he regularly covers. "It's like 'Nightline,' but it's not on the air," he said. He would not divulge his fee, or how much he earned in the past twelve months from speeches.

Greenfield argued that nearly everything he did could be deemed a potential conflict. "I cover cable, but I cover it for ABC, which is sometimes in conflict with that industry," he said. Could he accept money to write a magazine piece or a book when he might one day report on the magazine publisher or the book industry? He is uneasy with the distinction that news-papers like the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post make, which is to prohibit daily reporters from giving paid speeches to corporations or trade associations that lobby Congress and have agendas, yet allow paid college speeches. (Even universities have legislative agendas, Greenfield noted.) In trying to escape this ethical maze, Greenfield concluded, "I finally decided that I can't figure out everything that constitutes a conflict."

Eleanor Clift, of Newsweek, who is cast as the beleaguered liberal on "The McLaughlin Group," said that she made between six and eight appearances a year with the group. Her fee for a speech on the West Coast was five thousand dollars, she said, but she would accept less to appear in Washington. She would not disclose her outside speaking income, and said that if a member of Congress were to ask she would say, "I do disclose. I disclose to the peo-ple I work for. I don't work for the taxpayers."

Christopher Matthews, a nationally syndicated columnist and Washington bureau chief of the San Francisco Examiner, who is a political commentator for "Good Morning America" and co-host of a nightly program on America's Talking, a new, NBC-owned cable network, told me last June that he gave between forty and fifty speeches a year. He netted between five and six thousand dollars a speech, he said, or between two and three hundred thousand dollars a year. Like many others, he is represented by the Washington Speakers Bureau, and he said that he placed no limitations on corporate or other groups he would appear before. "To be honest, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it," he said. "I give the same speech."

David S. Broder, of the Washington Post, who has a contract to appear regularly on CNN and on NBC's "Meet the Press," said that he averaged between twelve and twenty-four paid speeches a year, mostly to colleges, and that the speeches are cleared with his editors at the Post. He did not discuss his fee, but Howard Kurtz, the Post's media reporter, said in his recent book "Media Circus" that Broder makes up to seventy-five hundred dollars a speech. Broder said he would support an idea advanced by Albert R. Hunt, the Wall Street Journal's Washington editor, to require disclosure as a condition of receiving a congressional press card. To receive a press card now, David Holmes, the superintendent of the House Press Gallery, told me, journalists are called upon to disclose only if they receive more than five per cent of their income from a single lobbying organization. Hunt said he would like to see the four committees that oversee the issuing of congressional press cards--made up of five to seven journalists each--require full disclosure of any income from groups that lobby Congress. He said he was aware of the bitter battle that was waged in 1988, when one committee issued new application forms for press passes which included space for detailed disclosure of outside income. Irate reporters demanded that the application form be rescinded, and it was. Today, the Journal, along with the Washington Post, is among the publications with the strictest prohibitions on paid speeches. Most journalistic organizations forbid reporters to accept money or invest in the stocks of the industries they cover. But the Journal and the Post have rules against reporters' accepting fees from any groups that lobby Congress or from any for-profit groups.

Hunt, who has television contracts with "The Capital Gang" and "Meet the Press," said that he averaged three or four speeches a year, mostly to colleges and civic groups, and never to corporations or groups that directly petition Congress, and that he re-ceived five thousand dollars for most speeches.

William Safire, the Times columnist, who is a regular on "Meet the Press," was willing to disclose his lecture income. "I do about fifteen speeches a year for twenty thousand dollars a crack," he said. "A little more for overseas and Hawaii." Where Safire parts company with Hunt is that he sees nothing wrong with accepting fees from corporations. He said that in recent months he had spoken to A.T. & T., the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, and Jewish organizations. Safire said that because he is a columnist his opinions are advertised, not hidden. "I believe firmly in Samuel Johnson's dictum 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,' " he went on. "I charge for my lectures. I charge for my books. I charge when I go on television. I feel no compunction about it. It fits nicely into my conserva-tive, capitalist--with a capital 'C'--philosophy."

Tim Russert, the host of "Meet the Press," said that he had given "a handful" of paid speeches in the past year, including some to for-profit groups. He said that he had no set fee, and that he was wary of arbitrary distinctions that say lecturing is bad but income from stock dividends is fine. Russert also raised the question of journalists' appearing on shows like "Meet the Press," which, of course, have sponsors. "Is that a conflict? You can drive yourself crazy on this."

Few journalists drive themselves crazy over whether to accept speaking fees from the government they cover. They simply don't. But enticements do come from unusual places. One reporter, who asked to remain anonymous, said that he had recently turned down a ten-thousand-dollar speak-ing fee from the Central Intelligence Agency. A spokesman for the C.I.A., David Christian, explained to me, "We have an Office of Training and Education, and from time to time we invite knowledgeable non-government experts to talk to our people as part of our training program." Does the agency pay for these speeches? "Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don't," he said. Asked for the names of journalists who accepted such fees, Christian said that he was sorry but "the records are scattered."

Time's Washington columnist, Margaret Carlson, who is a regular on "The Capital Gang," laughed when I asked about her income from speeches and said, "My view is that I just got on the gravy train, so I don't want it to end." Carlson said she gave six speeches last year, at an average of five thousand dollars a speech, including a panel appearance in San Francisco before the American Medical Association (with Michael Kinsley, among others). She made a fair distinction between what she did for a fee and what Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen tried to do in 1987, when, as Senate Finance Committee chairman, he charged lobbyists ten thousand dollars a head for the opportunity to join him for breakfast once a month. "We are like monkeys who get up onstage," Carlson said, echoing Chris Wallace. "It's mud wrestling for an hour or an hour and a half, and it's over."

THERE are journalistic luminaries who make speeches but, for the sake of appearances, do not accept fees. They include the three network-news anchors--NBC's Tom Brokaw, ABC's Peter Jennings, and CBS's Dan Rather--all of whom say that they don't charge to speak or they donate their fees to charity. "We don't need the money," Brokaw said. "And we thought it created an appearance of conflict." Others who do not accept fees for speaking are Ted Koppel, of ABC's "Nightline"; Jim Lehrer, of "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour"; Bob Schieffer, CBS's chief Washington correspondent and the host of "Face the Nation"; and C-SPAN's Brian Lamb.

ABC's senior Washington correspondent, James Wooten, explained how, in the mid-eighties, he decided to change his ways after a last lucrative weekend: "I had a good agent and I got a day off on Friday and flew out Thursday after the news and did Northwestern University Thursday night for six thousand dollars. Then I got a rental car and drove to Milwaukee, and in midmorning I did Marquette for five or six thousand dollars. In the afternoon, I went to the University of Chicago, to a small symposium, for which I got twenty-five hundred to three thousand dollars. Then I got on a plane Friday night and came home. I had made fifteen thousand dollars, paid the agent three thousand, and had maybe two thousand in expenses. So I made about ten thousand dollars for thirty-six hours. I didn't have a set speech. I just talked off the top of my head." But his conscience told him it was wrong. "It's easy money," Wooten said.

As for me, The New Yorker paid my travel expenses to and from the congressional retreat. In the past twelve months, I've given two paid speeches: the first, at New York's Harmonie Club, was to make an opening presentation and to moderate a panel on the battle for control of Paramount Communications, for which I was paid twelve hundred dollars; the second was a speech on the future of the information superhighway at a Manhattan luncheon sponsored by the Baltimore-based investment firm of Alex. Brown & Sons, for which my fee was seventy-five hundred dollars. I don't accept lecture fees from communications organizations.

Like the public figures we cover, journalists would benefit from a system of checks and balances. Journalistic institutions, including The New Yorker, too seldom have rigorous rules requiring journalists to check with an editor or an executive before agreeing to make a paid speech; the rules at various institutions for columnists are often even more permissive. Full disclosure provides a disinfectant--the power of shame. A few journalistic institutions, recently shamed, have been taking a second look at their policies. In mid-June, ABC News issued new rules, which specifically prohibit paid speeches to trade associations or to any "for-profit business." ABC's ban--the same one that is in place at the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post--prompted Roberts, Donaldson, Brinkley, Wallace, and several other ABC correspondents to protest, and they met in early August with senior news executives. They sought a lifting of the ban, which would allow them to get permission on a case-by-case basis. But a ranking ABC official says, "We can agree to discuss exceptions, but not give any. Their basic argument is greed, for Christ's sake!" Andrew Lack, the president of NBC News, said that he plans to convene a meeting of his executives to shape an entirely new speaking policy. "My position is that the more we can discourage our people from speaking for a fee, the better," he said. And CBS News now stipulates that all speakingrequests must be cleared with the president or the vice-president of news. Al Vecchione, the president of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, admitted in June to having been embarrassed by the American Journalism Review piece. "We had a loose policy," he said. "I just fin-ished rewriting our company policy." Henceforth, those associated with the program will no longer accept fees to speak to corporate groups or trade associations that directly lobby the government. The New Yorker, according to its executive editor, Hendrik Hertzberg, is in the process of reviewing its policies.

Those who frequently lecture make a solid point when they say that lecture fees don't buy favorable coverage. But corruption can take subtler forms than the quid pro quo, and the fact that journalists see themselves as selling entertainment rather than influence does not wipe the moral slate clean. The real corruption of "fee speech," perhaps, is not that journalists will do favors for theassociations and businesses that pay them speaking fees but that the nexus of television and speaking fees creates what Representative Obey called "an incentive to be even more flamboyant" on TV--and, to a lesser extent, on the printed page. The television talk shows value vividness, pithiness, and predictability. They prefer their panelists reliably pro or con, "liberal" or "conservative." Too much quirkiness can make a show unbalanced; too much complexity can make it dull. Time's Margaret Carlson told me, not entirely in jest, "I was a much more thoughtful person before I went on TV. But I was offered speeches only after I went on TV." Her Time colleague the columnist Hugh Sidey said that when he stopped appearing regularly on television his lecture income shrivelled. Obey wishes that it would shrivel for the rest of the pundit class as well. An attitude of scorn often substitutes for hard work or hard thought, and it's difficult to deny that the over-all result of this dynamic is a coarsening of political discourse.

Celebrity journalism and the appearance of conflicts unavoidably erode journalism's claim to public trust. "My view is that you're going to start having character stories about journalists," Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University and the director of the Project on Public Life and the Press, told me recently. "It's inevitable. If I were a big-name Washington journalist, I'd start getting my accounts together. I don't think journalists are private citizens." (c)


© 1996-2002, Ken Auletta - all rights reserved
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