More Honor, Fewer Honoraria  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   March 1996

More Honor, Fewer Honoraria   

NBC moves – wisely – to stop its journalists from taking speaking fees from corporations and trade associations.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Score one for the Peacock.

NBC News was right on target when it banned staffers from accepting speaking fees from corporations and trade associations that lobby government or take public positions on issues.

The new policy also prohibits staffers from taking honoraria from any group they might cover, and requires that all paid appearances be approved by management.

File this one under the heading of good news. Because The Great Speaking Fee Boondoggle has been one of the more unsavory aspects of contemporary journalism.

Celebrity journalists rake in fees of up to $35,000 per speech, often making more money in an hour than many non-celebrity journalists earn in a year.

Contributing writer Alicia C. Shepard explored the world of buckraking in our May 1994 issue, triggering a flurry of attention on the subject in such publications as The New Yorker and the Washington Post, and on the floor of the Senate. In a followup article in June 1995, she traveled to Fort Lauderdale to hear and watch as ABC's Cokie Roberts took in $35,000 for an hour of talk. While her appearance was at a Junior League event, the money was put up by a large Toyota distributor.

In tandem with its first cousin, the television pundit show, the this-mouth-for-hire syndrome underscores so much of what is wrong with the field today:

Journalism as entertainment, and journalists as entertainers.

Journalists and politicians as part of an elite, living in a rarefied world far removed from the mundane realm inhabited by their viewers, readers, listeners and constituents.

The double standard: journalists eagerly taking large fees for speaking to trade associations, while pillorying government officials who go on junkets arranged by the same outfits.

Damaged credibility: No matter how often you say you won't be influenced by, say, a $25,000 speaking fee, it's asking a lot to expect someone who works all year to make that much money to believe you. At a time when the public's confidence in journalism is at a record low, this is the last thing we need.

The schmoozing-for-dollars phenomenon comes in for harsh criticism in two recent books: James Fallows' "Breaking the News" (see page 46) and Howard Kurtz's "Hot Air."

One of the depressing aspects of the whole affair is the way some of the nation's star journalists violate a cardinal rule: Don't defend an indefensible position.

Some of the buckrakers emphasize their God-given right to charge what the traffic will bear, regardless of the fallout. The mighty mouths disingenuously argue that it's OK because they are not public officials, as if their work had no impact on the public process.

Members of the profession, which for so long has stressed that the appearance of impropriety can be as critical a problem as impropriety itself, say: Trust us. Sure, we may take money from big corporations and special interests, but never in a million years will it affect our work.

Often, of course, it doesn't. But how can we be sure?

While they like to talk when the meter is running, some of the big hitters clam up when asked about their fees. When Shepard tried to discuss the issue with Roberts, an ABC spokesperson returned with this astonishing response: "She feels strongly that it's not something that in any way, shape or form should be discussed in public."

What a position for any journalist, not to mention such a highly respected one, to take. We're not exactly talking nuclear weapons here. Maybe Roberts and the other well-paid talking heads should be provided with "classified" stamps for records of their appearances.

How can such otherwise intelligent (and very well-paid) people be so tone deaf? Never underestimate the allure of money – big money, easy money.

NBC's tough new rules stem from a year-long review of all NBC News policies, according to Bill Wheatley, the network's vice president for news. The previous guidelines on honoraria, he says, were "vague."

Wheatley says some staffers were upset by the ban because they felt that the network was questioning their integrity. They were told that wasn't the case.

"We told them that we were making sure our credibility was protected," Wheatley says. "We really have to be above suspicion and avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest."

Wheatley says controversy over the fees was heating up while NBC was reviewing its policies, but the network would have tightened its rules regardless.

(Of course, codes are not necessarily a panacea. ABC, which adopted a policy similar to the new NBC approach in 1994, said Roberts' Fort Lauderdale appearance was OK, even though the Toyota distributor picked up the tab. The reason? The Junior League sponsored the event.)

What kind of message does it send to young journalists when the stars of the profession take huge sums for brief speeches? Often working long hours for relatively low pay, filled with zeal to right wrongs and do important work, they resent the high-price| speech-making, and are a little baffled by it, particularly since those who command the big fees are already highly paid.

"You'd criticize a politician for doing it," says Margaret Talev, 23, a Tampa Tribune reporter. "So how could you do it? Why would you do it?"

Very good questions.

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