(PART 2 OF 2) Cokie and Steve Inc.
Cokie Roberts joined the long line of journalists appearing before the health care industry when she addressed the Group Health Association. But the health care issue was growing so hot that she decided to donate her fee to a Princeton medical center named for her late sister. "I realized it could be construed as a problem and said, Don't even bother sending me the money' . . . I didn't want anybody to question it," Roberts says.
Health care lobbyists have no monopoly on writing checks to moonlighting journalists, of course, and Roberts was particularly energetic in her speechmaking endeavors before ABC restricted special-interest lectures by its correspondents last year. She has spoken to the American Automobile Association, Mortgage Bankers Association of America, National Association of Chain Drug Stores, National Restaurant Association and Snack Food Association. She and her husband, Steve Roberts, were paid $35,000 by Chicago's Northern Trust Co. for speaking at a cocktail party, breakfast and luncheon.
Cokie Roberts says all the publicity about honoraria has clearly created "a perception problem. But I do not know of a living soul who has slanted a story, done a story or not done a story because of speaking fees.
"It's like when I would sing for a living," she says, recalling her college days in an all-female a cappella group. "You are hired to entertain. You show up, you entertain, you go away. They're looking for celebrity value."
Roberts, whose parents both served in Congress, sees no analogy to congressional honoraria, because she reports to ABC executives, not the taxpayers. Still, she says, "if it's going to cause everyone a lot of trouble, it's better not to do it. I don't like being the center of controversy."
For his part, Steve Roberts -- whose speaking gigs have included American Express and the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives -- says U.S. News has an in-house speech agent who makes such bookings because they are good publicity for the magazine. He says he occasionally gives his fee to charity when he believes he has a conflict of interest, as he did in donating about $2,000 for speaking at an Upstate New York forum sponsored by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert. He benefits from his speaking, Roberts argues, because it puts him in contact with real people outside the Beltway.
"It's a classic free market," he says. "I've often compared giving speeches to having a little stall in a souk in Damascus. Why do Sam Donaldson and Diane Sawyer and Cokie Roberts make fees five to 10 times what someone like me commands? Because they're on TV. It's not that they're 10 times smarter than me. They're 10 times more famous than I am. And there is the bragging rights factor: Gosh, we had Cokie Roberts for dinner.' " The Bankers and the Bureau Chief
One of the most popular forms of entertainment for business groups is mock debates that mimic those on television. "The McLaughlin Group," "Crossfire" and "Capital Gang" have all taken their shows on the road. Margaret Carlson, who has joined Robert Novak and Mark Shields before paying audiences, says the result is more outlandish than what people see on the air. "These fake wrestling matches are really phony," she says. "You tend to speak in absolutes and end up further to one side than you really are." In an unforgettable simile, she told the New Yorker's Ken Auletta: "We are like monkeys who get up onstage."
The roadshows even extend to network programs. Tim Russert, who hosts "Meet the Press" while doubling as NBC's Washington bureau chief, has staged a mock session of his show before the American Bankers Association, with Sen. Bob Dole and Robert Rubin, then the White House economic adviser, as his guests. Russert, whose fee was reported by the Chicago Tribune's James Warren to be about $20,000, says he turns down a hundred speaking invitations a year because of conflicts of interest and accepts only half a dozen. He doesn't see the banking appearance as a conflict because he didn't ask Dole and Rubin about banking. "Whatever I share is something I've said on the air," he says. "It's an honest reflection of what I do. If they had said, Here are the questions we want you to ask,' I wouldn't have done it."
Russert adds that he cannot avoid all entanglement with corporations because "Meet the Press" sells commercial time. "We have Archer Daniels Midland, United Airlines and General Electric as sponsors," he says. Nevertheless, he says, "we did a story on Archer Daniels and their political contributions on NBC Nightly News.' "
Even public television can be a launching pad for lucrative roadshows. David Gergen and Mark Shields, who sparred for several years on "MacNeil/Lehrer," recently split about $20,000 for a Las Vegas performance before the Independent Insurance Agents of America.
Shields, a syndicated columnist, says he simply couldn't pay his rent, phone bill and other expenses without making well over 30 speeches a year. He says he refuses invitations "to talk about how this Congress is going to deal with roofing and asphalt contractors. I don't feel I'm singing for my supper. What they're getting for their money is someone who makes them think and maybe even makes them laugh." Just Say No
It is possible, of course, for a journalist to decline lecture-circuit cash, and some very big names have done so.
The Big Three network anchors, for example -- Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw -- either accept no honoraria or donate the money to charity. Walter Cronkite, who took money for speeches when he was anchoring the "CBS Evening News," says he never thought much about it. Now, he told the American Journalism Review's Alicia Shepard, "I would have to agree with the critics that it probably is better avoided."
A few other top television journalists, such as Ted Koppel and Jim Lehrer, have also abandoned the lecture circuit. Koppel says his speaking invitations soared after he started doing "Nightline" in 1980. To get the biggest bang for the buck, he recalls, he told his agent: "Instead of doing speeches for $10,000, let's see what happens when we ask for 15. Make it 20. Make it 25. Make it 30." Each time, the requests kept pouring in.
Koppel stopped making paid speeches half a dozen years ago after one group offered him a $50,000 fee. "I began to feel uncomfortable about it," he says. "No one who makes $18,000 a year is ever going to believe that someone can get $30,000 for a couple of hours' work and not be influenced in some fashion by the people giving him that much money. It would be superhuman. In truth, it is different. If you're making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, then your $30,000 fee is more or less equivalent to someone making $18,000 getting a gift of 20 bucks. It's not as big a thing as it seems to be. In all the years that I did speeches for money, I can honestly say that no one ever called up before, or tried during or afterward, to say, How about doing a story on the Lumberman's Association of America?' Or, I was sort of disappointed, Ted. I thought you and I had become friends down there in Gainesville and I was a little disappointed at your take on the lobbying we're doing.' Not even close. But with the level of public mistrust in us where it is . . . Lord knows I'm well enough paid that I don't need anything from anyone else."
Some news organizations, as well as individuals, also put limits on the buckraking game. The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal prohibit staffers from accepting honoraria from corporations or lobbying groups, or from organizations they cover. (In my own case, I've made a handful of speeches over the years to universities and nonprofit groups, sometimes for free and sometimes for $500 or $1,000.) The New York Times bars staffers from accepting pay or travel expenses from organizations whose interests they cover. The Los Angeles Times has no specific ban but requires approval of senior editors to avoid possible conflicts. Time, as we have seen, banned corporate speechifying last year.
The only TV network that has adopted a hard line on the issue of journalists speaking for pay is ABC. Last year, the network's news division imposed a restrictive policy drawn up by senior vice president Richard Wald, its ethics czar. In a memo to the staff, Wald said that a few correspondents, "either because of the frequency or the size of their fees, in fact have a second, high-income job . . .
"We don't tilt what we say to please any special interest, we don't sell special access in the guise of fees -- and we don't want to risk looking as though we do . . . It isn't just how big a fee is, it is also who gives it and what it might imply. Therefore, rather than get into the details of what reasonable men and women might do, we have decided on a general prohibition against the core of the problem. You may not accept a fee from a trade association or from a for-profit business. Their special interest is obvious and we have to guard against it."
The memo was about as popular as a communicable disease at ABC's Washington bureau, where most of the big-name correspondents work. Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, David Brinkley, Brit Hume and Jeff Greenfield were among those who signed a letter objecting to the ban.
Greenfield says, with some justification, that drawing a clear ethical line is difficult. "The whole idea of avoiding conflicts of interest is exactly right," he says. But "when you start trying to figure out what is and what isn't, it gets really tricky. You can speak to nonprofit groups -- they don't have a legislative agenda? They lobby all the time."
And, inevitably, there are what Wald describes as "gray areas." In the last 15 months, Brinkley, Donaldson and George Will have appeared at a $395-a-head talkathon in Bakersfield, Calif. (along with William Safire, Mike Wallace, Larry King, the cast of "Capital Gang," Bob Hope, Frank Gifford, Gerald Ford and George Bush). The event, designed to raise the sponsor's profile, is organized and financed by Borton, Petrini & Conron, a Bakersfield law firm with 125 attorneys in 16 offices. The firm says it does no lobbying, and Wald says he would probably approve such speeches in the future.
ABC's ban offers a few other loopholes. Cokie Roberts made a $30,000 speech last year to the Junior League of Greater Fort Lauderdale, which Wald approved because it is a civic group. But the money was actually put up by JM Family Enterprises, a $4 billion firm that includes the largest independent American distributor of Toyotas. Roberts says she was never told where the money came from and that most nonprofit organizations, including her other employer, National Public Radio, have corporate underwriters. Wald raised no objection, saying: "We do not have detectives here who figure out where civic organizations get their money."
There have been additional exceptions as well. When "Good Morning America" became part of ABC's news division, co-host Joan Lunden was allowed to continue her lucrative endorsement deal with Vaseline and to peddle her line of exercise videos. And part-time commentators, such as George Will, are not covered by the ban.
The Wald policy doesn't address other forms of income, such as stock holdings that, in the case of network executives, could easily run into millions of dollars. "Should I be allowed to own 50,000 shares of General Motors stock?" Donaldson asks. "The rules say I can. You extend the logic and you'd proscribe everything but Treasury bills. And maybe even those, since I report on government activities."
In fact, as ABC had to report last year, Donaldson does more than cover government; he receives help from the government. He has pocketed $97,000 in federal wool and mohair subsidies for the sheep on his New Mexico ranch. While perfectly legal, these payments have taken a bit of the punch out of his reports on government waste. The master of the ambush interview was ambushed himself by Steve Wilson of "Inside Edition," who sheared Donaldson over the sheep money. And on the "Brinkley" show one morning, when Donaldson was sparring with Newt Gingrich about perks for members of Congress, Gingrich shot back that the House doesn't have too many "magnates of mohair." Reality Check
At bottom, the defense of journalists who speak for money goes something like this: I am just a private person who wields no official power. What I do on my own time is my own business. I have no obligation to disclose my outside earnings to anyone. These payments do not influence what I write or say in any way. No one from these interest groups has ever asked me for a favor. Besides, I have too much integrity to be bought for the price of a speech.
There is little doubt that these journalists really believe this line of argument. And there is no hard evidence that any of them has pulled a punch or slanted a story after a financial one-night stand. But the corruption is more subtle than that.
The more time you spend with lobbyists and corporate officials, the more you come to identify with their world view. It may be easier not to pursue a complicated story about an industry after you have taken the industry's money, if only to avoid potential criticism. At $10,000 or $20,000 or $30,000 a pop, your lecture schedule becomes as vital as your journalistic duties. The hypocrisy question is unavoidable, for when it comes to politicians and businessmen, most journalists believe that the appearance of a conflict of interest is as troublesome as an actual one. And the appearance of what many pundits are doing, to borrow James J. Kilpatrick's pungent phrase, "smells to high heaven."
The larger danger is that, in the pursuit of fat lecture fees, journalists may undermine their essential public purpose -- the reason that their activities are protected by the Constitution. The dozens of talking heads vying for more air time may come to think less about informing Americans than about conforming to the demands of the medium for short, snappy, provocative opinions. Pushing to tell important stories may take a back seat to marketing themselves as colorful personalities. They may find it advantageous to strike a pose of negativity and cynicism toward the political system -- a stance, as it happens, that is attractive to many of the business groups looking for speakers. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the airwaves are filled with the sound of bombastic arguments and predictions and outrages of the week. Most of the players are also auditioning for a better-paying audience.
The essence of journalism, even for the fiercest opinion-mongers, is supposed to be professional detachment. The public has a right to expect that those who pontificate for a living are not in financial cahoots with the industries and lobbies they analyze on the air. Too many reporters and pundits simply have a blind spot on this issue. They have been seduced by the affluence and adulation that come with television success. They are engaging in drive-by journalism, rushing from television studio to lecture hall with their palms outstretched. Perhaps when they mouth off on television, a caption should appear under their names: " PAID $20,000 BY GROUP HEALTH ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA ." " TOOK $15,000 CHECK FROM AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION ."
Appearances, as Sam Donaldson says, can be reality. And while the talk show culture has made some journalists rich, it could -- in a very real sense -- leave their profession bankrupt.
Howard Kurtz covers the media for The Washington Post. This story is adapted from his new book, Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time, published by Times Books. CAPTION: Clockwise from left: Sam Donaldson, Steve Roberts, George Will, David Gergen and Cokie Roberts. CAPTION: SAM DONALDSON CAPTION: JACK GERMOND CAPTION:DAVID GERGEN CAPTION:CHRISTOPHER MATTHEWS CAPTION:CLARENCE PAGE CAPTION: MICHAEL KINSLEY CAPTION: COKIE ROBERTS CAPTION: STEVE ROBERTS