Renting the Fourth Estate; Why Won't the George Wills and Sam Donaldsons Disclose the Speaking Fees That Have Made Celebrity Journalism Such a Growth Industry?

By Willrich, Michael | The Washington Monthly, March 1990 | Go to article overview

Renting the Fourth Estate; Why Won't the George Wills and Sam Donaldsons Disclose the Speaking Fees That Have Made Celebrity Journalism Such a Growth Industry?


Willrich, Michael, The Washington Monthly


Renting the Fourth Estate

Why won't the George Wills and Sam Donaldsons disclose the speaking fees that have made celebrity journalism such a growth industry?

Within the genteel caste system of Washington journalism, the Periodical Press Gallery at the Capitol is a bracingly democratic institution, where well-known journalists like Newsweek's Eleanor Clift share the membership rolls with the rank-and-file from Communications Daily and Food Chemical News. For magazine and newsletter journalists covering the Hill, gallery membership is a necessary privilege. Gallery credentials entitle the holders to brush past Capitol security, observe Senate and House debates from the press gallery, and have phone messages taken for them by congressional employees. Keeping watch over the gallery is an elected Executive Committee of Correspondents, whose primary mission is to make sure the passes don't fall into the hands of lobbyists and other influence-peddlers.

In December 1988, the gallery erupted. Depending on who you talk to, the issue was professionalism, privacy, or the First Amendment. The trouble started when the Executive Committee issued new disclosure forms requiring the 1,500 members to list the sources (not amounts) of their nonsalary income, including honoraria for appearances on government-funded broadcast programs like Voice of America and fees for speeches to industry groups, labor unions, and lobbies. Congress had handed down the disclosure rule years before, and the committee, concerned that gallery journalists were earning more and more of their income from honoraria, voted to enforce the measure. But a lot of gallery members didn't much like the idea. By the time the dust had settled, four members of the committee had been ousted--their seats filled by dissenters--and the revamped disclosure form had been chucked out the window.

The outside fees controversy reached a boil last April, when Eleanor Randolph, the Post's media reporter, wrote a front-page story revealing the speaking fees of many of Washington's most sought-after journalists. The public learned that the $2,000 honoraria then routinely accepted by congressmen were peanuts compared with the speaking fees landed by their critics in the Fourth Estate. David Gergen of U.S. News and World Report took home up to $5,000 for speaking to groups like SRI International and United Technologies Atlantic & Pacific Advisory Councils; commentator Patrick Buchanan pulled in $10,000 for each of "24 to 30" speeches a year; Time's Hugh Sidey and columnist Jack Anderson reportedly earned $10,000 a pop; for the Post's David Broder, a speech to the American Stock Exchange was worth at least $5,000; William Safire of The New York Times made $18,000 for a single speech to Southeastern Electric. What Randolph didn't point out, however, was that the speaking fees trickle down to lesser-known journalists, who may give only a few talks each year but are as open to potential conflicts of interest as their more renowned colleagues.

Many journalists didn't take kindly to the scrutiny they received last winter. Morton Kondracke, a New Republic writer and a regular performer on the "McLaughlin Group," scoffed at the honoraria debate in a TNR column. Kondracke, who refused to reveal his own earnings, condemned financial disclosure for journalists as "an exercise in voyeurism and an invasion of privacy."

Kondracke's response pointed to the heart of the matter, but never reached it. Of course voyeurism alone could never justify the intrusion of disclosure, in the same way it could never justify riffling through a senator's checkbook. But there are other, more legitimate considerations at work that demand the disclosure of journalists' outside income. Journalists, like senators, are people with great influence; and journalists, like senators, are people--and therefore subject to temptation and influence. As is the case with politicians and industrialists, private interest money can bend the work of journalists in inappropriate ways--not necessarily through overt quid pro quos, but more subtly, particularly through the enticements and distractions of fame. …

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