The Growing Debate Over Speaking Fees
By Alicia C. Shepard
To Congressional Quarterly's Jonathan Salant, the issue is clearcut. Lucrative speaking fees for celebrity journalists from corporations, trade associations and the like are nothing less than bribes, and journalists shouldn't be permitted to take them under any circumstances.
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
Next month, Salant will seek to have the Society of Professional Journalists embrace his position, when the 86-year-old professional group considers a new ethics code at its annual convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Perhaps the most contentious issue up for debate is speaking fees.
The proposed code states that journalists "must tactfully refuse gifts, awards, favors, speaker's fees or special treatment from sources, subjects, advertisers or others trying to buy influence." The language marks the first time speaking fees are mentioned in the code, which was written in 1973.
Salant, former president of SPJ's Washington chapter, advocates an outright ban on honoraria for working journalists. Salant says the proposed code is "much too weak. I think it sanctions taking fees from anyone reporters cover because all the reporters and people who pay them say they are not trying to buy influence."
But to Louis Hodges, who teaches journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, it's not that simple. Hodges, chairman of SPJ's ethics code task force, says it is "inappropriate" for the group to "totally condemn" speaking fees because half of the organization's members are not working journalists.
"What we are attempting to do is say something strong for active reporters against taking fees, while avoiding any absolute prohibition of SPJ members who are not active reporters, such as academics, students or public relations people who have no conflict," Hodges says.
The issue of accepting honoraria has attracted much attention on the Internet, sparking fierce online condemnation of the practice on journalism listservers.
"Those who take speaking fees cannot continue to take honoraria and claim it does not affect their reporting, yet continue to do stories that indicate those in Congress are affected in their voting by who gives them political donations," wrote Mike McGraw, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the Kansas City Star.
"I don't like to see members of our profession taking big bucks from organizations they may have to cover later," wrote Dan Kubiske, a freelance journalist. "Even though everything may be on the up-and-up and the reporter may be the most ethical person to walk on the face of the earth, the mere appearance of a conflict of interest is enough to cause problems."
The issue of journalists' speaking fees also stirred up debate on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, introduced nonbinding legislation calling for journalists to disclose outside income annually as a prerequisite to obtaining credentials to cover the Senate. A bipartisan coalition approved the measure 60-39 in July, and in August Byrd introduced legislation that would make disclosure mandatory.
Byrd raised the issue after reading that ABC's Cokie Roberts and other journalists were collecting fees of as much as $35,000 for a single speech (see "Take the Money and Talk," June). Incensed, Byrd concluded that journalists should be as accountable as members of Congress, because they are equally powerful.
Currently, magazine correspondents covering the Hill are required to list sources of outside income--but not amounts--on their applications for credentials. Byrd wants to extend such disclosure, including amounts, to the more than 6,000 newspaper, magazine, radio and television journalists currently accredited to cover Congress, an effort that has not escaped the attention of journalists opining on the Internet.
"As someone who had both House and Senate periodical gallery credentials, part of me applauds this measure and part of me is repulsed by it," wrote Sharon Young Richardson, who writes and edits George Mason University's faculty newspaper.
Richardson and the many others who oppose the idea of the federal government regulating journalists point out that the First Amendment prohibits Congress from making any law concerning freedom of the press. Others opposed to Byrd's amendment question his motives, noting that the senator was recently a target of ABC's "PrimeTime Live" for practicing pork barrel politics.
"This is clearly his effort to 'get back' at a press that has asked him 'legitimate' questions over the years about the strong-arm pork barrel spending in his home state, leveraged by his seniority in the Senate," wrote Max Cacas, news operations producer for National Public Radio.
A Byrd aide says the senator hopes that some sort of disclosure policy will come voluntarily from journalism groups in charge of issuing credentials to cover Capitol Hill.
Investigative Reporters & Editors is also turning its attention to the issue of speaking fees. Planners for IRE's annual convention next year in Providence are considering honoraria as the topic for the organization's annual ethics panel.
"People who make a living disclosing information ought not to be reluctant about disclosing information themselves," says Rosemary Armao, IRE's executive director. "Everyone should be open to scrutiny. That is the spirit of investigative reporting."###