Take the Money and Talk
Debate simmers over celebrity journalists' mammoth speaking fees. Time recently banned staffers from taking them. Critics assert they hurt credibility. But some who accept honoraria resent the assault on their free market rights.
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
It's speech time at the Broward County Convention Center in Fort Lauderdale.
ABC News correspondent and NPR commentator Cokie Roberts takes her brown handbag and notebook off of the "reserved" table where she has been sitting, waiting to speak. She steps up to the podium where she is gushingly introduced and greeted with resounding applause.
Framed by palm fronds, Roberts begins her speech to 1,600 South Florida businesswomen attending a Junior League-sponsored seminar. Having just flown in from Washington, D.C., Roberts breaks the news of the hours-old arrest of a suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing. She talks of suffragette Susan B. Anthony, of how she misses the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill, of the Republican takeover on Capitol Hill. Then she gives her listeners the inside scoop on the new members of Congress.
"They are very young," says Roberts, 52. "I'm constantly getting it wrong, assuming they are pages. They're darling. They're wildly adept with a blow dryer and I resent them because they call me ma'am." The audience laughs.
After talking for an hour on "Women and Politics," Roberts answers questions for 20 minutes. One woman asks the veteran correspondent, who has covered Washington since 1978, when there will be a female president.
"I think we'll have a woman president when a woman is elected vice president and we do in the guy," Roberts quips.
This crowd loves her. When Roberts finishes, they stand clapping for several minutes. Roberts poses for a few pictures and is whisked out and driven to the Miami airport for her first-class flight back to Washington.
For her trouble and her time, the Junior League of Greater Fort Lauderdale gave Roberts a check for $35,000. "She's high, very high," says the League's Linda Carter, who lined up the keynote speakers. The two other keynote speakers received around $10,000 each.
The organization sponsored the seminar to raise money for its community projects, using Roberts as a draw. But shelling out $35,000 wouldn't have left much money for, say, the League's foster care or women's substance abuse programs or its efforts to increase organ donors for transplants.
Instead, Roberts' tab was covered by a corporate sponsor, JM Family Enterprises. The $4.2 billion firm is an umbrella company for the largest independent American distributor of Toyotas. The second-largest privately held company in Florida, it provides Toyotas to 164 dealerships in five southeastern states and runs 20 other auto-related companies.
But Roberts doesn't want to talk about the company that paid her fee. She doesn't like to answer the kind of questions she asks politicians. She won't discuss what she's paid, whom she speaks to, why she does it or how it might affect journalism's credibility when she receives more money in an hour-and-a-half from a large corporation than many journalists earn in a year.
"She feels strongly that it's not something that in any way, shape or form should be discussed in public," ABC spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said in response to AJR's request for an interview with Roberts.
Roberts' ABC colleague Jeff Greenfield, who also speaks for money, doesn't think it's a good idea to duck the issue. "I think we ought not not talk about it," he says. "I mean that's Cokie's right, obviously," he adds, but "if we want people to answer our questions, then up to a reasonable point, we should answer their questions."
The phenomenon of journalists giving speeches for staggering sums of money continues to dog the profession. Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau Chief James Warren has created a cottage industry criticizing colleagues who speak for fat fees. Washington Post columnist James K. Glassman believes the practice is the "next great American scandal." Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley has denounced it on the Senate floor.
A number of news organizations have drafted new policies to regulate the practice since debate over the issue flared a year ago (see "Talk is Expensive," May 1994). Time magazine is one of the latest to do so, issuing a flat-out ban on honoraria in April. The Society for Professional Journalists, in the process of revising its ethics code, is wrestling with the divisive issue.
The eye-popping sums star journalists receive for their speeches, and the possibility that they may be influenced by them, have drawn heightened attention to the practice, which is largely the province of a relatively small roster of well-paid members of the media elite. Most work for the television networks or the national news weeklies; newspaper reporters, with less public visibility, aren't asked as often.
While the crescendo of criticism has resulted in an official crackdown at several news organizations – as well as talk of new hardline policies at others – it's not clear how effective the new policies are, since no public disclosure system is in place.
Some well-known journalists, columnist and "Crossfire" host Michael Kinsley and U.S. News & World Report's Steven V. Roberts among them, scoff at the criticism. They assert that it's their right as private citizens to offer their services for whatever the market will bear, that new policies won't improve credibility and that the outcry has been blown out of proportion.
But the spectacle of journalists taking big bucks for speeches has emerged as one of the high-profile ethical issues in journalism today.
"Clearly some nerve has been touched," Warren says. "A nerve of pure, utter defensiveness on the part of a journalist trying to rationalize taking [honoraria] for the sake of their bank account because the money is so alluring."
A common route to boarding the lecture gravy train is the political talk show. National television exposure raises a journalist's profile dramatically, enhancing the likelihood of receiving lucrative speaking offers.
The problem is that modulated, objective analysis is not likely to make you a favorite on "The Capital Gang" or "The McLaughlin Group." Instead, reporters who strive for objectivity in their day jobs are often far more opinionated in the TV slugfests.
Time Managing Editor James R. Gaines, who issued his magazine's recent ban on accepting honoraria, sees this as another problem for journalists' credibility, one he plans to address in a future policy shift. "These journalists say things we wouldn't let them say in the magazine..," says Gaines, whose columnist Margaret Carlson appears frequently on "The Capital Gang." "It's great promotion for the magazine and the magazine's journalists. But I wonder about it when the journalists get into that adversarial atmosphere where provocation is the main currency."
Journalists have been "buckraking" for years, speaking to trade associations, corporations, charities, academic institutions and social groups. But what's changed is the amount they're paid. In the mid-1970s, the fees peaked at $10,000 to $15,000, say agents for speakers bureaus. Today, ABC's Sam Donaldson can get $30,000, ABC's David Brinkley pulls in $18,000 and the New York Times' William Safire can command up to $20,000.
When a $4.2 billion Toyota distributor pays $35,000 for someone like Cokie Roberts, or a trade association pays a high-profile journalist $10,000 or $20,000 for an hour's work, it inevitably raises questions and forces news executives to re-examine their policies.
That's what happened last June at ABC. Richard Wald, senior vice president of news, decided to ban paid speeches to trade associations and for-profit corporations – much to the dismay of some of ABC's best-paid correspondents. As at most news organizations, speaking to colleges and nonprofits is allowed.
When Wald's policy was circulated to 109 employees at ABC, some correspondents howled (see Free Press, September 1994). Protests last August from Roberts, Donaldson, Brinkley, Greenfield, Brit Hume and others succeeded only in delaying implementation of the new guidelines. Wald agreed to "grandfather in" speeches already scheduled through mid-January. After that, if a correspondent speaks to a forbidden group, the money must go to charity.
"Why did we amend it? Fees for speeches are getting to be very large," Wald says. "When we report on matters of national interest, we do not want it to appear that folks who have received a fee are in any way beholden to anybody other than our viewers. Even though I do not believe anybody was ever swayed by a speech fee, I do believe that it gives the wrong impression. We deal in impressions."
The new policy has hurt, says ABC White House correspondent Ann Compton. Almost a year in advance, Compton agreed to speak to the American Cotton Council. But this spring, when she spoke to the trade group, she had to turn an honorarium of "several thousand dollars" over to charity. Since the policy went into effect, Compton has turned down six engagements that she previously would have accepted.
"The restrictions now have become so tight, it's closed off some groups and industries that I don't feel I have a conflict with," says Compton, who's been covering the White House off and on since 1974. "It's closed off, frankly, the category of organizations that pay the kind of fees I get." She declines to say what those fees are.
And it has affected her bank account. "I've got four kids...," Compton says. "It's cut off a significant portion of income for me."
Some speakers bureaus say ABC's new policy and criticism of the practice have had an impact.
"It has affected us, definitely," says Lori Fish of Keppler Associates in Arlington, Virginia, which represents about two dozen journalists. "More journalists are conscious of the fact that they have to be very particular about which groups they accept honoraria from. On our roster there's been a decrease of some journalists accepting engagements of that sort. It's mainly because of media criticism."
Other bureaus, such as the National Speakers Forum and the William Morris Agency, say they haven't noticed a difference. "I can't say that the criticism has affected us," says Lynn Choquette, a partner at the speakers forum.
Compton, Donaldson and Greenfield still disagree with Wald's policy but, as they say, he's the boss.
"I believe since all of us signed our contracts with the expectation that the former ABC policy would prevail and took that into account when we agreed to sign our contracts for X amount," Donaldson says, "it was not fair to change the policy midstream." Donaldson says he has had to turn down two speech offers.
6reenfield believes the restrictions are unnecessary.
"When I go to speak to a group, the idea that it's like renting a politician to get his ear is not correct," he says. "We are being asked to provide a mix of entertainment and information and keep audiences in their seats at whatever convention so they don't go home and say, 'Jesus, what a boring two-day whatever that was.' "
Most agree it's the size of the honoraria that is fueling debate over the issue. "If you took a decimal point or two away, nobody would care," Greenfield says. "A lot of us are now offered what seems to many people a lot of money. They are entertainment-size sums rather than journalistic sizes."
And Wald has decided "entertainment-size sums" look bad for the network, which has at least a dozen correspondents listed with speakers bureaus. It's not the speeches themselves that trouble Wald. "You can speak to the American Society of Travel Agents or the Electrical Council," he says, "as long as you don't take money from them."
But are ABC officials enforcing the new policy? "My suspicion is they're not, that they are chickenshit and Cokie Roberts will do whatever the hell she wants to do and they don't have the balls to do anything," says the Chicago Tribune's Warren, whose newspaper allows its staff to make paid speeches only to educational institutions.
There's obviously some elasticity in ABC's policy. In April, Greenfield, who covers media and politics, pocketed $12,000 from the National Association of Broadcasters for speaking to 1,000 members and interviewing media giants Rupert Murdoch and Barry Diller for the group. Wald says that was acceptable.
He also says it was fine for Roberts to speak to the Junior League-sponsored business conference in Fort Lauderdale, even though the for-profit JM Family Enterprises paid her fee.
"As long as the speech was arranged by a reasonable group and it carried with it no tinct from anybody, it's okay," says Wald. "I don't care where they [the Junior League] get their money."
Even with its loopholes, ABC has the strictest restrictions among the networks. NBC, CBS and CNN allow correspondents to speak for dollars on a case-by-case basis and require them to check with a supervisor first. Last fall, Andrew Lack, president of NBC News, said he planned to come up with a new policy. NBC spokesperson Lynn Gardner says Lack has drafted the guidelines and will issue them this summer. "The bottom line is that Andrew Lack is generally not in favor of getting high speaking fees," she says.
New Yorker Executive Editor Hendrik Hertzberg also said last fall that his magazine would review its policy, under which writers are supposed to consult with their editors in "questionable cases." The review is still in progress. Hertzberg says it's likely the magazine will have a new policy by the end of the year.
"There's something aesthetically offensive to my idea of journalism for American journalists to be paid $5,000, $10,000 or $20,000 for some canned remarks simply because of his or her celebrity value," Hertzberg says.
Rewriting a policy merely to make public the outside income of media personalities guarantees resistance, if not outright hostility. Just ask John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau. This year, Harwood was a candidate for a slot on the committee that issues congressional press passes to daily print journalists.
His platform included a promise to have daily correspondents list outside sources of income – not amounts – on their applications for press credentials. Harwood's goal was fuller disclosure of outside income, including speaking fees.
"I'm not trying to argue in all cases it's wrong," says Harwood. "But we make a big to-do about campaign money and benefits lawmakers get from special interests and I'm struck by how many people in our profession also get money from players in the political process."
Harwood believes it's hypocritical that journalists used to go after members of Congress for taking speech fees when journalists do the same thing. (Members of Congress are no longer permitted to accept honoraria.)
"By disclosing the people who pay us," says Harwood, "we let other people who may have a beef with us draw their own conclusions. I don't see why reporters should be afraid of that."
But apparently they are. Harwood lost the election.
"I'm quite certain that's why John lost," says Alan J. Murray, the Journal's Washington bureau chief, who made many phone calls on his reporter's behalf. "There's clearly a lot of resistance," adds Murray, whose newspaper forbids speaking to for-profit companies, political action committees and anyone who lobbies Congress. "Everybody likes John. But I couldn't believe how many people said – even people who I suspect have very little if any speaking incomes – that it's just nobody's business. I just don't buy that."
His sentiment is shared in the Periodical Press Gallery on Capitol Hill, where magazine reporters applying for press credentials must list sources of outside income. But in the Radio-Television Correspondents Gallery, where the big-name network reporters*go for press credentials, the issue of disclosing outside income has never come up, says Kenan Block, a "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" producer.
"I've never heard anyone mention it here and I've been here going on 11 years," says Block, who is also chairman of the Radio-Television Correspondents Executive Committee. "I basically feel it's not our place to police the credentialed reporters. If you're speaking on the college circuit or to groups not terribly political in nature, I think, if anything, people are impressed and a bit envious. It's like, 'More power to them.' "
But the issue of journalists' honoraria has been mentioned at Block's program.
Al Vecchione, president of McNeil/Lehrer Productions, says he was "embarrassed" by AJR's story last year and immediately wrote a new policy. The story reported that Robert MacNeil accepted honoraria, although he often spoke for free; partner Jim Lehrer said he had taken fees in the past but had stopped after his children got out of college.
"We changed [our policy] because in reading the various stories and examining our navel, we decided it was not proper," Vecchione says. "While others may do it, we don't think it's proper. Whether in reality it's a violation or not, the perception is there and the perception of it is bad enough."
MacNeil/Lehrer's new policy is not as restrictive as ABC's, however. It says correspondents "should avoid accepting money from individuals, companies, trade associations or organizations that lobby the government or otherwise try to influence issues the NewsHour or other special..programs may cover."
As is the case with many of the new, stricter policies, each request to speak is reviewed on a case-by-case basis. That's the policy at many newspapers and at U.S. News.
Newsweek tightened its policy last June. Instead of simply checking with an editor, staffers now have to fill out a form if they want to speak or write freelance articles and submit it to Ann McDaniel, the magazine's chief of correspondents.
"The only reason we formalized the process is because we thought this was becoming more popular than it was 10 years ago," McDaniel says. "We want to make sure [our staff members] are not involved in accepting compensation from people they are very close to. Not because we suspect they can be bought or that there will be an improper behavior but because we want to protect our credibility."
Time, on the other hand, looked at all the media criticism and decided to simply end the practice. In an April 14 memo, Managing Editor Gaines told his staff, "The policy is that you may not do it."
Gaines says the new policy was prompted by "a bunch of things that happened all at once." He adds that "a lot of people were doing cruise ships and appearances and have some portion of their income from that, so their ox is gored."
The ban is not overwhelmingly popular with Time staffers. Several, speaking on a not-for-attribution basis, argue that it's too tough and say they hope to change Gaines' mind. He says that won't happen, although he will amend the policy to allow paid speeches before civic groups, universities and groups that are "clearly not commercial."
"Academic seminars are fine," he says. "If some college wants to pay expenses and a $150 honorarium, I really don't have a problem with that."
Steve Roberts, a senior writer with U.S. News & World Report and Cokie Roberts' husband, is annoyed that some media organizations are being swayed by negative publicity. He says there's been far too much criticism of what he believes is basically an innocuous practice. Roberts says journalists have a right to earn as much as they can by speaking, as long as they are careful about appearances and live by high ethical standards.
ýThis whole issue has been terribly overblown by a few cranks," Roberts says. "As long as journalists behave honorably and use good sense and don't take money from people they cover, I think it's totally legitimate. In fact, my own news organization encourages it."
U.S. News not only encourages it, but its public relations staff helps its writers get speaking engagements.
Roberts says U.S. News has not been intimidated by the "cranks," who he believes are in part motivated by jealousy. "I think a few people have appointed themselves the critics and watchdogs of our profession. I, for one, resent it."
His chief nemesis is Jim Warren, who came to Washington a year-and-a-half ago to take charge of the Chicago Tribune's bureau. Warren, once the Tribune's media writer, writes a Sunday column that's often peppered with news flashes about which journalist is speaking where and for how much. The column includes a "Cokie Watch," named for Steve Roberts' wife of 28 years, a woman Warren has written reams about but has never met.
"Jim Warren is a reprehensible individual who has attacked me and my wife and other people to advance his own visibility and his own reputation," Roberts asserts. "He's on a crusade to make his own reputation by tearing down others."
While Warren may work hard to boost his bureau's reputation for Washington coverage, he is best known for his outspoken criticism of fellow journalists. Some reporters cheer him on and fax him tips for "Cokie Watch." Others are highly critical and ask who crowned Warren chief of the Washington ethics police.
Even Warren admits his relentless assault has turned him into a caricature.
"I'm now in the Rolodex as iconoclast, badass Tribune bureau chief who writes about Cokie Roberts all the time," says Warren, who in fact doesn't. "But I do get lots of feedback from rank-and-file journalists saying, 'Way to go. You're dead right.' It obviously touches a nerve among readers."
So Warren writes about Cokie and Steve Roberts getting $45,000 from a Chicago bank for a speech and the traveling team of television's "The Capital Gang" sharing $25,000 for a show at Walt Disney World. He throws in parenthetically that Capital Gang member Michael Kinsley "should know better."
Kinsley says he would have agreed a few years ago, but he's changed his tune. He now believes there are no intrinsic ethical problems with taking money for speaking. He does it, he wrote in The New Republic in May, for the money, because it's fun and it boosts his ego.
"Being paid more than you're worth is the American dream," he wrote. "I see a day when we'll all be paid more than we're worth. Meanwhile, though, there's no requirement for journalists, alone among humanity, to deny themselves the occasional fortuitous tastes of this bliss."
To Kinsley, new rules restricting a reporter's right to lecture for largesse don't accomplish much.
"Such rules merely replace the appearance of corruption with the appearance of propriety ," he wrote. "What keeps journalists on the straight and narrow most of the time is not a lot of rules about potential conflicts of interest, but the basic reality of our business that a journalist's product is out there for all to see and evaluate."
The problem, critics say, is that without knowing who besides the employer is paying a journalist, the situation isn't quite that clear-cut.
Jonathan Salant, president of the Washington chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, cites approvingly a remark by former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee in AJR's March issue: "If the Insurance Institute of America, if there is such a thing, pays you $10,000 to make a speech, don't tell me you haven't been corrupted. You can say you haven't and you can say you will attack insurance issues in the same way, but you won't. You can't."
Salant thinks SPJ should adopt an absolute ban on speaking fees as it revises its ethics code. Most critics want some kind of public disclosure at the very least.
Says the Wall Street Journal's Murray, "You tell me what is the difference between somebody who works full time for the National Association of Realtors and somebody who takes $40,000 a year in speaking fees from Realtor groups. It's not clear to me there's a big distinction. I'm not saying that because you take $40,000 a year from Realtors that you ought to be thrown out of the profession. But at the very least, you ought to disclose that."
And so Murray is implementing a disclosure policy. By the end of the year, the 40 journalists working in his bureau will be required to list outside income in a report that will be available to the public.
"People are not just cynical about politicians," says Murray. "They are cynical about us. Anything we can do to ease that cynicism is worth doing."
Sen. Grassley applauds the move. Twice he has taken to the floor of the Senate to urge journalists to disclose what they earn on the lecture circuit.
"It's both the amount and doing it," he says. "I say the pay's too much and we want to make sure the fee is disclosed. The average worker in my state gets about $21,000 a year. Imagine what he or she thinks when a journalist gets that much for just one speech?"
Public disclosure, says Grassley, would curtail the practice.
Disclosure is often touted as the answer. Many journalists, such as Kinsley and Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt – a television pundit and Murray's predecessor as bureau chief – have said they will disclose their engagements and fees only if their colleagues do so as well.
Other high-priced speakers have equally little enthusiasm for making the information public. "I don't like the idea," says ABC's Greenfield. "I don't like telling people how much I get paid."
But one ABC correspondent says he has no problem with public scrutiny. John Stossel, a reporter on "20/20," voluntarily agreed to disclose some of the "absurd" fees he's earned. Last year and through March of this year Stossel raked in $160,430 for speeches – $135,280 of which was donated to hospital, scholarship and conservation programs.
"I just think secrecy in general is a bad thing," says Stossel, who did not object to ABC's new policy. "We [in the media] do have some power. We do have some influence. That's why I've come to conclude I should disclose, so people can judge whether I can be bought."
(Stossel didn't always embrace this notion so enthusiastically. Last year he told AJR he had received between $2,000 and $10,000 for a luncheon speech, but wouldn't be more precise.)
Brian Lamb, founder and chairman of C-SPAN, has a simpler solution, one that also has been adopted by ABC's Peter Jennings, NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS' Dan Rather and Connie Chung. They speak, but not for money.
"I never have done it," Lamb says. "It sends out one of those messages that's been sent out of this town for the last 20 years: Everybody does everything for money. When I go out to speak to somebody I want to have the freedom to say exactly what I think. I don't want to have people suspect that I'm there because I'm being paid for it."
On February 20, according to the printed program, Philip Morris executives from around the world would have a chance to listen to Cokie and Steve Roberts at 7 a.m. while enjoying a continental breakfast. "Change in Washington: A Media Perspective with Cokie and Steve Roberts," was the scheduled event at the PGA resort in Palm Beach during Philip Morris' three-day invitational golf tournament.
A reporter who sent the program to AJR thought it odd that Cokie Roberts would speak for Philip Morris in light of the network's new policy. Even more surprising, he thought, was that she would speak to a company that's suing ABC for libel over a "Day One" segment that alleged Philip Morris adds nicotine to cigarettes to keep smokers addicted. The case is scheduled to go to trial in September.
At the last minute, Cokie Roberts was a no-show, says one of the organizers. "Cokie was sick or something," says Nancy Schaub of Event Links, which put on the golf tournament for Philip Morris. "Only Steve Roberts came."
Cokie Roberts won't talk to AJR about why she changed her plans. Perhaps she got Dick Wald's message.
"Of course, it's tempting and it's nice," Wald says of hefty honoraria. "Of course, they [ABC correspondents] have rights as private citizens. It's not an easy road to go down. But there are some things you just shouldn't do and that's one of them." ###