Big talkers in the Senate, moving faster than the speed of their booking agents, earned $1.7 million in speaking fees in 1981. Seventeen of the top 20 were Republicans, according to Common Cause. Robert Dole of Kansas was the leading money winner at $66,850. Others with a lot to say, and blessed with groups rich enough to pay for it, were Jake Garn of Utah ($48,000), Paul Laxalt of Nevada ($33,500) and Lowell Weicker of Connecticut ($32,150).
When these facts appeared in newspapers, a companion story was needed: How much are the big talkers in the news business earning in honoraria?
The senators are stoop laborers compared with many in the media. They are limited to $2,000 a speech, but journalists, from television anchormen to prominent syndicated columnists, earn fees as high as $15,000 per lecture. At the cash register for much of this is the Washington Speakers Bureau. It reports that "a good print columnist can easily earn much more" than Dole's humble $66,850. With the bureau's stable sending horses to the fast track for between 20 and 60 lectures a year, incomes of a quarter- to a half-million dollars are possible. The Senate stipend of $2,000 barely covers warm-up jokes.
With money talking, talking for money means that the public trust is at stake. The credibility of the media would be enhanced if fees were a matter of public record, as well as other sources of outside income for those in the news business. Media figures hot in the marketplace are not public employes as senators are, but they are in positions to shape the discussion of public policy. The larger, richer and more influential the media become, the more they have a duty to maintain their integrity.
The issue in public disclosure of speaking fees, whether for politicians or journalists, isn't conflict of interest. It is independence, coupled with the candor that creates public trust. Citizens want laws to be made by politicians free of ties to special interests, and they want the news to be reported and commented on by unbiased journalists. According to Common Cause, $977,000 of the $1.7 million paid to senators in 1981 came from business groups. It is much the same with the media. "A tremendous amount" of speaking dates, reports the Washington Speakers Bureau, "are with trade associations."
If a columnist takes $100,000 a year for burbling to business groups about the glories of free enterprise and produces pieces saying the regulatory agences are too powerful, shouldn't the readers know he is receiving that sum? What about his colleague who dispenses $7,500 worth of wisdom in 30-minute speeches to defense contractors and uses his column for pedantries on behalf of greater weapons spending?
These journalists can be assumed to be as honest as St. Francis sharing crumbs with the birds. But the public, because it is the object of the columnists' attempts at persuasion, should be informed of how the crumbs are gathered by the lecture circuit regulars. Nothing more threatening than the ethics of Las Vegas are needed: I trust you, mother, but cut the cards.
If we trust the senators but ask for financial disclosure, it isn't too much to apply the same standard to the powerful media. Nothing grubby is ever part of the lecture contract, either for politicians or press. The wealthy trade association knows it can't purchase votes or viewpoints. It does know that it can try to buy the speaker's sustained attention. Before and after the lecture, and during the Q&A, he is in the company of the association's leaders who in the spirit of friendship may describe the woes of earning an honest buck in these miserable times.
As he is paid a fee, how can the lecturer not also pay attention? And perhaps be sympathetic. A few days ago, I paid attention to an audience of 300 military officers at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at Ft. McNair in Washington. I am a busboy at the lecture banquet and received $100 for my unagented talk. For that sum, I gave my military friends exposure to the priceless thinking of Gandhi, King, Tolstoy and peacemaking bishops. Throughout the morning, I was in the position of hearing the war college's view that military might is needed in America's hour of peril. I liked and respected the intelligent men who told me this, though nothing they said is about to prompt me to write in favor of the MX missile or any other weapon, cherished at the war college.
Whether I do or not is not the main point. Press accountability is. It demands that the reader know that for many in the news business "reliable sources" can also include reliable sources of income.