Columnist Robert Novak was still speaking to the Republican Governors Association in Pinehurst, N.C., Tuesday morning when a group of fellow Washington reporters took off for the airport. The scribes were startled to discover Novak already in the airport lounge when they arrived, and even more surprised when the state trooper who had driven him there came in carrying Novak's luggage.
It turns out the conservative commentator, who wrote about the GOP conference in yesterday's Evans and Novak column, was there as both a journalist and a paid speaker. The Republican gathering picked up the tab for a joint appearance by Novak and New Republic writer Morton Kondracke, including their air fare and accommodations at the Pinehurst Hotel and Country Club. Kondracke's fee was $4,000; Novak describes his only as "a pretty good sum."
While the money technically came from a private fund raised by North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin, the conference host, Novak concedes that it "does create something of a question." But Novak, who wore a "guest" name tag, says he used the opportunity to criticize the Republican Party. "Should I have done it gratis or for pay? The prudent answer is not to do it at all. Of the two choices, getting paid was more of an arm's-length arrangement than doing it as a contribution."
Should readers have been told, in a column about a "free lunch" GOP tax proposal, that the author was getting a free lunch himself? "Maybe that should have been put in. I didn't think of it," Novak says.
Kondracke says that "if I were going to write about it, I'd certainly say I was down there to make a speech and got paid for it." But he says that "I'm paid to have opinions. If someone asks me to make a speech, unless they're illegal or immoral, I do it."
Help for Hometowners When WTVJ-TV in Miami had trouble getting permission for a reporter to accompany local Army troops to Saudi Arabia, the station turned to Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The bureaucratic roadblocks were quickly cleared.
"The most difficult part was getting there," says reporter Bonnie Anderson. "It took our congressman speaking with Colin Powell and Dick Cheney," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense.
Dozens of news organizations trying to get into Saudi Arabia have asked members of Congress to press their case with Pentagon officials, who must approve each trip, and the Saudi Embassy, which issues four-day visas for "hometown" journalists covering local units. These requests have raised eyebrows at a time when the Senate ethics committee is holding hearings on five senators who intervened with federal regulators on behalf of savings and loan executive Charles Keating.
Norman Ornstein, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, says the media maneuvering reeks of "hypocrisy."
"Anytime someone in the news business calls up a member of Congress to get something done or get something expedited, they are putting themselves in a funny position -- especially these days when editorials waxing eloquent about the Keating Five are everywhere," he says. "If the editor of the local paper calls you -- the paper that can decide whether your press releases get on the front page or don't get covered at all -- you're going to pay attention."
Several news organizations, including KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, have sought help from Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), one of the Keating Five. DeConcini has interceded with the Saudi Embassy for several Arizona newspapers and television stations, in one case sending a staffer to the embassy to process papers, says spokesman Robert Maynes.
"Reporters know we have a hell of a reputation for constituent service," Maynes says, adding that media criticism in the Keating case reflects "a double standard."
Many journalists say they have little choice because of interminable delays at the Pentagon and the Saudi Embassy.
"I would've asked pretty much anyone for help," WTVJ News Director Sharon Scott says of the request to Fascell. "We didn't have to beg him for a favor. It wasn't a sticky situation for us." A Fascell spokeswoman says the congressman interceded for the journalists because they are "local Miami constituents."
The National Guard has fielded more than 500 requests from news organizations that want to follow hometown reservists into the desert for feature stories. "We've had calls from members of Congress," says spokesman Dan Donohue. "There was no belligerence, no pressure. They were just calling on behalf of a constituent."
Gary Stokes, executive producer of Norfolk's WAVY-TV, says the station contacted every member of Virginia's congressional delegation, all of whom sent letters of support to the Saudi ambassador and faxed copies back to the station.
"I don't think it will affect our relationship with them," Stokes says. "It was just a means to an end. When you're trying to get something done, you take whatever you can get."
The Pentagon provides hometown journalists with 24-hour escorts and free transportation on military aircraft. Most news organizations said they see no need to reimburse the government. "The purpose of these trips is to get the media over there and boost the morale and let people send messages back home," says WTVJ's Scott.
Personal Foul When Ray Perkins was fired as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, he took a parting shot at Larry Guest, sports editor of the Orlando Sentinel.
Guest had written in a column the day before the firing that Perkins -- whose 19-41 record had some fans waving "Dump Ray in the Bay" banners -- believed that the National Football League team was about to dump him.
"I told him something in confidence, but hey, I'm just a naive Mississippi boy," Perkins told a news conference. "I'll guarantee you one thing, though -- I'll never trust another writer. I don't care if he's my father."
Strong words -- and they seemed even stronger to Guest when he read them in his own paper the next morning without having had a chance to respond. "I was stunned," he says. "The guys on the sports desk gave me 43 excuses. They ran his comment without even giving me a call."
Guest, an occasional golfing partner who has known the coach since their student days, dismissed Perkins's roughing-the-sportswriter as "words of frustration." Guest says he learned of Perkins's imminent firing from management sources and was openly taking notes when he interviewed the coach in the locker room after the team's Dec. 2 game.
"As we started to part, he said, 'That's not for you to write.' I kind of laughed and said, 'Ray, you've been in this business a long time. You know you can't retroactively put something off the record.' "