My focus here is on Wall Street because it is such a prominent source of speaking income, and because of its salience in today’s news. But the same questions and objections apply to the health-care sector, also a major source of funds, and any other industry the press covers. The damage is to reputation—to the fee-taking journalists and more broadly to journalism itself. “I hate the idea of these guys doing it,” a veteran financial journalist, who doesn’t give speeches for money, told me. “Everyone is wheeling and dealing in this culture. Even a perceived conflict of interest ruins it not only for the journalist, but for journalism. Reputation is everything.”
That’s harsh, but it seems telling that, with the notable exceptions of Gillian Tett, Michael Lewis, and Martin Wolf, most of the journalists I tried to talk to about their speaking appearances resisted comment, or would only talk anonymously—which is a little ironic. One prominent scribe pleaded not to be mentioned at all. (Sorry, no passes.) I still have the bite marks on my neck from a telephone conversation with another who demanded to know whether he was the target of a “hostile inquiry.”
The good news is that leading news organizations have in place strict policies to limit the practice of taking fees for speeches or even to ban it entirely, on the premise that the practice is inherently problematic.
At The Wall Street Journal, Robert Thomson, who was hired as managing editor in 2008, has set the gold standard, decreeing a flat ban on paid speeches. Staff under his watch can’t take fees for speeches from any source, profit or nonprofit—not even if they give the money to charity—and they can’t take payments for travel or other expenses. “If we think a speech is important for us to do, we do it on our dime, to avoid any possible conflict,” says Alan Murray, a deputy managing editor at the paper. Editorial-page staffers are permitted to take speaking fees from nonprofits but not from for-profits.
At Bloomberg, the company handbook, The Bloomberg Way, states that “Bloomberg journalists may not accept speaking fees” or payment for expenses from any source. There is, however, a loophole: The policy does not cover regular Bloomberg View contributors, a spokeswoman said. Clive Crook, for instance, is a featured columnist who writes about economic policy and financial affairs and is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board but not a full-time Bloomberg staffer; he is thus allowed to give paid speeches to financial firms and does so.
CNBC, which features wall-to-wall coverage of the financial markets, also has admirably tight standards. If star anchor Maria Bartiromo wants to speak at an event for investors, that’s fine, with permission from her bosses, but she cannot be paid. And this rule applies to events sponsored by any other business interest as well as nonprofits.
The bad news is that these institutional ethical standards are likely to become less meaningful as the number of salaried journalists continues to shrink and the ranks of independent journalists, without a permanent staff affiliation, continue to grow. These reporters are free to effectively draft their own ethics policies. In such a media universe, the ethical trajectory is apt to be downward, as experience suggests that it is corporate management that provides the hard push for strict standards.
John Harwood, of CNBC and The New York Times, can attest to the reluctance of journalists to clean up their acts on this front. Back in the mid-1990s, as a Wall Street Journal staffer, he ran for a seat on a committee of correspondents that set the standards for issuing daily press passes to congressional reporters. His sound but un-winning platform: require journalists to disclose sources of outside income, including speaking engagements. His colleagues rejected him for the position.
Speaking fees are “to me more an appearance issue than an actual conflict,” Harwood recently told me, “but nobody should be under the illusion that our credibility doesn’t need shoring up.” Harwood was the journalist, at a GOP debate back in November, who pointedly asked Newt Gingrich what he did for all that consulting dough from Freddie Mac. It’s a good thing he was the one asking that question, with his unimpeachable record of not taking money from the financial industry or other sources. He was throwing a stone, as we journalists are supposed to do in our line of work, and thankfully he was invulnerable to any thrown back at him.