Tom Friedman's unchallenged virtue is making the complicated simple. He's done it again, albeit inadvertently, when it comes to journalists taking money.
The San Francisco Chronicle disclosed that Friedman, one of the many reasons the New York Times verges on lapping most of the field as the finest daily newspaper, took $75,000 for a speech to the San Francisco Bay Area's clean air district. He then gave back the money, indicating through a spokesman that he hadn't known exactly to whom he'd be speaking; but he assumed it was a community group or nonprofit, not a government agency.
It's a hard-to-imagine reporting lapse by a great reporter. Be it an invitation to a movie screening, kids' birthday party or speech, one should do due diligence on one's host. That aside, the only really notable matter here was the rare, if accidental, disclosure of a journalist buckraking.
It happens all the time. Every week, elite journalists, especially those based in Washington with television-fueled high profiles, give speeches for four- and five-figure fees to groups whose issues they report or opine on, even if they don't specifically cover the particular institution. The A-list can routinely knock down between $10,000 and $30,000 an appearance, sometimes much more, especially if they're asked to temporarily exit the District of Columbia.
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It's one of Washington's unending scams, with its own vague conspiracy of silence in which nobody wants to upset the apple cart. I came across it in the mid-1990s while bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune and was quickly lambasted as an ambition-ridden neophyte. Cokie Roberts of ABC News was a personification of the unseemly enterprise and a serial buckraker. There was the late Tim Russert, Lesley Stahl and a small army of others; from the payrolls of PBS to CNN and Fox News Channel.
They'd all take huge sums of money for making speeches and moderating panels, even appearing with public officials barred by ethics rules from taking a penny. When I confronted one liberal columnist, he not only refused to concede any ethical murkiness but simply groused about conservative counterparts, like Robert Novak, routinely extracting far greater fees.
There were a few subsequent changes in rules at some organizations amid publicity about some indefensible forays. But, by and large, the practice continues, especially among the media versions of 800-pound journalistic gorillas (or is it 600-pound? 300-pound?). Nervous bosses employ the rankest situational ethics when it comes to star reporters, anchors and columnists; along the way tying themselves into knots making distinctions without much of a difference among "beat" reporters and those columnists and critics who dispense opinions for a living.
It's the free market at work. People are intrigued by journalists, even if they don't trust most of us. And stars can fill seats at conventions and other gatherings, even help nonprofits generate large sums at fundraising lunches and dinners for worthy causes; in the process allowing the speaker to pay a chunk of a college tuition with an hour-long discourse and question period. Many groups, including colleges and universities, have ample coffers to help bolster those individuals' patio or kitchen-renovation funds.
Due to modest TV exposure, I receive a few speaking offers and tend to do them pro bono, at most accepting transportation and lodging if it's elsewhere. I've taken a few hundred bucks here and there for college appearances, given a distinction in Chicago Tribune rules while I was there. I most recently spoke about the Obama administration to an elite group of bankers at a very fancy California hotel. Especially given the critical role of the association's members in the biggest story of our era, namely the economic crisis, I didn't think for a moment about taking money.
I'm no saint. But it's inevitable that, as a journalist, I will touch upon issues important to bankers, even without formally being a financial reporter. Even as I now look for fulltime employment, and am not beholden to an employee code of conduct, I don't need the labyrinthine rhetorical challenge of explaining why I took bankers' money at a time when I might be writing about or blabbing on TV about the economy or mess in the financial sector.
Journalists who are paid for speaking wind up creating, and usually denying, competing loyalties or conflicts of interest. And they'll almost never be willing to submit to the sort of public disclosure which they insist upon from those they cover. The only journalist I ever met willing to tell me about his speaking was John Stossel, the distinctly libertarian reporter for ABC News. The others guard the information like the Bush administration guarded the locations of its secret prisons.
"I'm not a public official!" is the refrain.
Those who are occasionally revealed to have done a gig that's not an especially close call will sometimes make the case that there's at worst an unfair perception of conflict, not anything bonafide. But distinguishing between those two also may be a stretch, with mere perception often sufficient to undermine a journalist's credibility.
The New York Times' own, generally high-minded ethics policy, indicates that staff members "may not accept compensation, expenses, discounts, gifts or other inducements from a news source."
Now is the Bay Area Air Quality Management District a "news source" as so defined? Maybe not. But Friedman regularly writes about the issues important to groups of this sort, and about key players in their world. And the notion that he would never have taken the money if he knew it was a government agency borders on folly.
Is the money that much cleaner when it comes from the private sector or a nonprofit? Even many nonprofits these days are involved in at least de facto lobbying over both significant Obama policy changes and, as important, the administration's dispensing of huge sums, including via the economic stimulus.
At a recent, Illinois legislative hearing I attended, representatives of every imaginable group each lined up for a three-minute opportunity to plead with a state panel to funnel stimulus money their way. The four-hour line included the head of a female construction workers group, the boss of the Chicago public library system, union leaders and the principal of my five-year-old son's public elementary school (one so impoverished, parents routinely buy and bring in toilet paper, paper towels, pencil sharpeners, you name it).
As for the frequent rationalization by columnists, namely that they're to be distinguished from the average reporter, the fact is most people don't make that distinction. Plus, in a world in which editors (nervous about looking dull in a razzle-dazzle media culture) are intentionally pressing reporters to blog and be more opinionated (though they'll use other words, like "analytical"), the distinction is blurring at an Indy 500 pace.
If the City Hall or White House reporter blogs, and likely exhibits a more impressionistic style than allowed in his or her "straight news" dispatches, should they now exercise the columnist's I'm-paid-to-give-my-views-anyway justification for paid oratory?
Then there's the occasional rationalization by buckrakers, especially those who don't really need the money, that they give their lucre to charity. They bring it up as if that eliminates any and all conflicts. It may not.
The ensuing complications include one's indirect benefit, such as being thought well of by the charity, or viewed well within your community as a kind fellow who contributes to worthy causes. Forgotten is how the journalist benefits from what is essentially a financial transaction between the initial sponsor of a speaking appearance and the charity getting the donation.
The New York Times ethics policy has a fair bit of room for interpretation, I concede. But almost all this paid speaking should be eliminated. Even the frequent exception for speaking to educational institutions (presumably students) might be scrapped. Those institutions are a regular focus of media coverage, and also frequent recipient of taxpayer dollars.
This is a horrendous time for journalism, in large part due to catastrophic declines in revenue. It's a period in which bosses have far bigger fish to fry than worrying about whether the likes of Tom Friedman, one of our best, give paid speeches.
Should papers charge for some or all of their online content? In the case of the Times, its one such attempt, TimesSelect, which charged for columnists and archives, did not work. It's safe to say that Friedman and other columnists, chagrined by lower traffic, were glad the decision was made to return to giving away their work online for free.
But, whatever business model emerges to hopefully save us, there will still be the need to earn and maintain professional respect. To inspire inevitable questions about our own ethics makes the task tougher, especially given reflexive (often grossly unfair) public suspicion about our honesty and motives.
So when it comes to this whole matter of speaking for money, the reality may be far less complex than the Middle East or outsourcing American jobs to India. It doesn't take a Tom Friedman to explain it.
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