When journalists get paid to speak
Sunday, October 3, 2010
The Post has stringent newsroom policies governing paid speeches by its journalists. Honoraria or expense reimbursement may be accepted only if there is no reasonable suggestion that the money would influence Post coverage. Supervisors must approve speaking invitations.
But policies are less clear, and enforcement less rigorous, for those who work for The Post on contract. Their numbers have grown in recent years as The Post has cut costs by nudging some of its best people to take buyouts and continue working on contract. The result is a growing class of Post journalists who operate with less oversight, and sometimes under different rules.
A survey of Post contract writers and editors reveals that few seek approval for their paid speeches. Several were not even familiar with the language in their contracts governing appearances.
Nationally known education writer Jay Mathews gives a handful of speeches each year at fees up to $3,500. While he is aware that his Post contract stipulates that he "adhere to stated Post newsroom policies" requiring advance approval from a supervisor, he acknowledged, "I have not routinely asked for permission." He stressed that he never accepts speaking fees from groups he's covering.
Opinion columnists who work on contract and appear on The Post's editorial page are not bound by the newsroom's policies, said Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt. But he said that he expects them to "come to me if they think there is any conflict of interest that readers should know about."
This would affect well-known names such as veteran political columnist David S. Broder, who has been working on contract and writing only an opinion column for more than two years. Broder said that he averages about one paid speech a month, mostly to college audiences, at fees of as much as $10,000.
But in the newsroom, more than a half dozen contract writers and editors who occasionally give paid speeches acknowledged that they do not seek clearance. The lone exception in seeking approval was Steven Luxenberg, an associate editor who works on projects.
Peter Perl, The Post's assistant managing editor for personnel, said full-time newsroom staffers are vigilant about seeking clearance. "With anything that even remotely appears to be a potential conflict, they have to clear it," he said.
But for those on contract, he acknowledged: "We don't monitor them. These are senior people and we trust that they know the rules on conflict of interest."
Some are confused about whether to adhere to newsroom policies or less restrictive language in their contract.
Bob Woodward, who has become wealthy from a career built on his role in exposing the Watergate scandal, works on contract for a token salary of $1,200 a year. He feels governed by the segment of his contract that requires him to disclose any potential conflict of interest "in terms of work you are performing for The Post." But Woodward plays no role in crafting news coverage and rarely even visits The Post. Rather, he writes books that typically are condensed or excerpted in The Post. Most recently, they have been about American military operations. He occasionally speaks before military audiences, but said he is careful not to take a fee or reimbursement for expenses when he does so.
Woodward gives more than 20 paid speeches in a typical year, for fees of up to $50,000. He donates almost all of the money to the Woodward Walsh Foundation, which he created with his wife, journalist Elsa Walsh. IRS filings show that the foundation has assets of about $2 million and that last year it gave about $103,000 in charitable contributions. Nearly half of that went to Sidwell Friends, the elite District school from which one of Woodward's daughters graduated and where another is enrolled.
Woodward doesn't feel he should have to adhere to the newsroom's more restrictive rules, which say staffers should avoid accepting appearance fees from individuals, companies or groups that "lobby government or otherwise try to influence issues the newspaper covers."
Interpreted broadly, that could limit his speeches. "I don't see any conflict between the speeches and my Washington Post $100-a-month contract," he said, noting that nearly all his fees fund the foundation's charitable contributions.
Woodward makes a good case. He is primarily a book author with only a loose affiliation with The Post. Still, to many readers he remains inextricably linked to the paper. Through an abundance of caution, he should alert The Post to planned speeches so concerns can be raised if editors see a potential problem. But the obligation is clear for contract journalists actively engaged with producing The Post. They're in a different category, and their role is growing. At a minimum, The Post should require explicit approval before they give paid speeches.
Recently, Post senior editors have started looking at whether the contracts adequately require adherence to newsroom ethics policies. That's good. Increased vigilance today can save embarrassment down the line.