How Speaking Fees Might Be Distorting Public Debate

The hidden economy of the Coulters, Clintons, and Zakarias

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Are speaking fees distorting politics and punditry? Politico's Ben Smith notices in a profile that Ann Coulter "makes 90% of her income on paid speeches." This gets him thinking: a lot of public figures make their living, or at least a substantial portion of their living, like Coulter. This is, "in some ways, the real economy of politics." What don't we know about this hidden economy? And how is it affecting public debate? Responding to Smith, many turned an eye to their own fields and professions.

  • So Here's the Situation  "Most of the people you see talking on television or quoted in stories--who aren't in elected office--make substantial parts of their livings giving speeches to private groups," explains Smith. For starters, "it provides an incentive for consultants and out-of-work politicians to volunteer themselves to cable television and to make themselves interested and controversial enough to stay on it." He's not entirely sure how "their basic careers are as paid speakers affects Bill Clinton's or Sarah Palin's conduct ... but it seems unwise to imagine that people don't take a major source of income seriously."
  • The Shape of the Foreign Policy Speaking Economy  Dan Drezner of Tufts and Foreign Policy summarizes the four "tiers" of foreign policy speaking. At the top are "former policy principals and mainstream elite pundits" like Condoleezza Rice and Fareed Zakaria. They go to "large associations, private colleges," etc. "Payment ranges from high-five figures to low-six figures." Then you've got a "second tier" of "senior think-tankers" and "former policymakers" making "high-four figures to middle-five figures," a "third tier" of "top tier IR academics," and a "fourth tier" of "assorted crackpots, garden-variety think-tankers, A-list bloggers"--this is where he puts himself. And how does it work?
After a certain point, becoming an intellectual bomb-thrower can be the quickest route to achieving pecuniary rewards.  That said, even in this case one has to have done good work in the past in order to be taken seriously.  So, in the foreign policy ecosystem at least, I'm not sure speaking fees distort policy analysis all that much.
  • The History of Journalists' Moneymaking  Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish notes that "twenty years ago, Jake Weisberg outed the journalists who were following the corporate money on the speaking circuit as 'buck-rakers.' Now the journalists are upped by performance artists like Coulter." Cable news is their opportunity to advertise.
  • How the Post Handles It  Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander writes (a week before Smith's post) about the Post's "stringent newsroom policies stringent newsroom policies governing paid speeches by its journalists. Honoraria or expense reimbursement may be accepted only if there is no reasonable suggestion that the money would influence Post coverage." But he points out that "policies are less clear, and enforcement less rigorous, for those who work for The Post on contract," of which there are more and more. "Opinion columnists who work on contract and appear on The Post's editorial page are not bound by the newsroom's policies," either. He seems to think there's room for improvement.
  • All You Need Is to Retire from Politics  Ben Smith follows up on his earlier post by publishing part of an email he received from an "industry executive":
It's almost a joke that I can find you a speakers fee within 2 weeks for everyone who either resigns or leaves government. And it's never discussed with any real scrutiny by the mainstream media or Fox because it's bi-partisan. Everyone does it!
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