When Speech Isn't Free

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, June 22, 2008

The propriety of David Broder and Bob Woodward taking fees or having expenses paid for speeches to special-interest groups was raised recently by Ken Silverstein, Washington editor of Harper's magazine, in his Washington Babylon blog. Silverstein found the fees unseemly and asked whether editors had approved them.

Broder, 78, has worked at The Post 42 years, been its premier political writer and is probably the country's best-known political columnist. Woodward is the rare print reporter who became rich and famous on investigative journalism.

Both took an early retirement buyout last month. Broder continues as a columnist on contract. (Disclosure: I have known Broder for more than 25 years and consider him a professional friend.) Woodward has ties to the paper going back to the Watergate scandal, and he still consults for the paper. He has a token contract for $1,200 a year, and he said he is available for consultation and assignment.

The Post Stylebook's ethics and standards section says only: "We freelance for no one and accept no speaking engagements without permission from department heads." Broder and Woodward did not check with editors on the appearances Silverstein mentioned.

Free speeches are no problem unless they create the appearance of an endorsement, said Executive Editor Len Downie. The Post has its own community speakers bureau, which pays staffers $100 a speech. As a rule, journalists are not to take fees or awards from government agencies, partisan groups or special-interest groups that focus mainly on lobbying. Speaking to educational or nonprofit groups for fees may be approved; whether to allow expenses to be paid is decided case by case. Downie unearthed a 1995 memo outlining the rules on speeches, but it is not widely known about in the newsroom.

Silverstein said an Internet search showed that Broder made a number of speeches to business groups, including the Western Conference of Prepaid Medical Service Plans, a group of nonprofit health plans; the National Association of Manufacturers, which met at a Florida resort; a Northern Virginia Association of Realtors fundraiser; and the American Council for Capital Formation, a nonprofit group promoting smaller government and lower taxes. Broder said he attended an ACCF dinner but did not give a speech and that he spoke free to the NAM and the health-care group. Silverstein said Broder also spoke to the Gartner Healthcare Summit in 2007. He was advertised as a speaker on an Internet site, but Broder said he canceled the engagement.

Broder said the groups paid his expenses. He received two speech fees -- about $7,000 from the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, and, in 2006, he accepted $12,000 from the Minnesota League of Cities. Mary Beth Coya, the Realtors' senior vice president for public and governmental affairs, said the event was not a fundraiser but was attended by elected officials "to promote our government affairs programs."

Broder and his wife, Ann, also took free passage on the 2007 Seabourn Cruise Line's 13-night "Rio and the Amazon" cruise in exchange for three speeches about presidents he has covered.

Broder said he adheres to "the newspaper's strict rules on outside activities" and "additional constraints of my own. I have never spoken to partisan gatherings in any role other than a journalist nor to an advocacy group that lobbies Congress or the federal government. Virtually all of the speeches I have made have been to college or civic audiences."

The NAM, the ACCF and the national parents of the Minnesota group and Northern Virginia Realtors do lobby Congress. Broder later said he broke the rules on those speeches. He also said he had cleared his speeches with Milton Coleman, deputy managing editor, or Tom Wilkinson, an assistant managing editor, but neither remembered him mentioning them. Wilkinson said Broder had cleared speeches in the past. Editors should have been consulted on all of the speeches as well as the cruise.

"I am embarrassed by these mistakes and the embarrassment it has caused the paper,'' Broder said.

Woodward said all his speaking fees -- which range from $15,000 to $60,000 -- go to a foundation he started in the 1990s with his wife, journalist Elsa Walsh. The Woodward Walsh Foundation has about $2.3 million, he said. He gave me its latest 2008 IRS filing, which will be made public, showing total gifts of $107,874, compared with $17,500 in 2007. Its largest donation in the past year was $51,000 to his daughter's Sidwell Friends School. Among other recipients were Investigative Reporters and Editors, Martha's Table and D.C. College Access.

Silverstein questioned whether the foundation gave away 5 percent of its net investment assets as required by law. Woodward said the foundation "rigorously" follows the law.

Woodward said he doesn't accept money from partisan organizations, the military, government groups or any group he might cover. He said he turns down "lots" of speech requests and gives "many" without charge. He said he believes he is complying with Post policy, which he called "fuzzy and ambiguous. The question is: Where does the money go? I don't keep the money. It's a straight shot into the foundation that gives money to legitimate charities. I think that's doing good work. My wife and I made a commitment to do this."

Broder should have followed his own and The Post's rules. Woodward's case is somewhat different, but Downie would like to know and should know what groups Woodward is speaking to in case he wants to object. Woodward's name and The Post's are synonymous, and whatever Woodward does is associated with the paper, even if he's rarely there.

Most of all, The Post needs an unambiguous, transparent well-known policy on speaking fees and expenses. It should deal with charities and those on contract. Approvals for speeches that involve fees should be sought and given in writing by a high-ranking editor. Fees should be accepted only from educational, professional or other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and politics are not a major focus -- with no exceptions.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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