Gillian Tett, the US managing editor of the London-based Financial Times, is “sharp” and “glamorous,” according to a 2010 profile by The Daily Beast. She may even be “the most powerful woman in newspapers,” the Beast said, as the FT “intends to become a status symbol of American business.” Tett is also a star on the Wall Street speaking circuit, a fact not mentioned in that profile. Testimonials from satisfied customers can be found on the website of Leigh Bureau, the speakers’ agency that books many of her talks. “Tett really wowed them, she talked about the present and the future of the markets,” according to an unnamed “federal mortgage company” that hired her. “We were very pleased with the forward-looking focus of Gillian’s topic, as many of the guests who were attending were clients of ours concerned with the next steps for their investments,” according to an “investment and asset management firm.”
Asked about her engagements, Tett told me she receives up to $20,000 a speech. A cut goes to the Leigh Bureau, and travel, lodging, and related expenses are paid by the customer. On occasion, Tett ventures outside the US, as in a speech last year to Unigestion, a Swiss asset manager. As for the money that comes to her from speaking—“well into the six figures,” she calculates-—she says she donates it, “for the most part,” to charity, specifically to a project for disadvantaged youngsters in the British city of Liverpool.
Tett has plenty of company. Many journalists give paid speeches to businesses and business groups. And Wall Street, as it happens, is probably the top source of such engagements. Household names like Bank of America as well as obscure hedge funds, private-equity firms, and others in the financial world frequently hire journalists—including scribes who regularly cover Wall Street—to deliver speeches at events ranging from publicized conferences to small private dinners with select clients. Millions of dollars have flowed to journalists in speaking fees in recent years.
Is this a scandal, a dark and an indelible stain on journalism, or really not such a big deal? What does Wall Street, which is all about the bottom line, after all, get from such engagements? Is this a matter of journalism ethics? Not surprisingly, what may at first seem a simple judgment call turns out to be a bit more complicated.
Even though the practice of journalists speaking for money is not a new one, these questions are especially ripe for exploration because of the enormous importance of Wall Street as a political and economic story for the press. The US economy is still suffering from the 2008 financial crisis, and Wall Street, saved by a controversial federal bailout of some $1 trillion, is emerging as a core issue in the 2012 presidential campaign—especially with the prospect that the Republican nominee will be Mitt Romney, a former private-equity baron.
The public needs to trust the press to get the story straight, all the more so because of pervasive distrust of Wall Street itself. According to a CNN/ORC International poll of Americans released in October, “two-thirds say Wall Street bankers are dishonest, a number that has gone up by a third in roughly two decades.” The Occupy Wall Street national protest movement attests to the suspicions.
In this toxic climate, many financial journalists are on edge, worried that any misstep could make them the target of criticism for being too cozy with Wall Street. Back in October, New York Times op-ed columnist Joe Nocera, who often writes about finance, was taken to task by media critic Erik Wemple of The Washington Post for speaking at a securities conference in Miami sponsored by Wall Street firms including Goldman Sachs, J. P. Morgan, and Morgan Stanley. The gig appeared to breach the paper’s own rule for not permitting staff journalists to take speaking fees from any for-profit sources. Nocera “declined to address the speaking fee,” Wemple wrote, and he also declined to talk to me.
But while some news organizations don’t permit their staffers to take speaking fees from any sources, including Wall Street, there is still plenty of action out there.
The lineup of writers on financial affairs who have spoken at Wall Street events—and are promoted by speakers’ bureaus as available for hire—is star-studded. The list includes Michael Lewis, a best-selling author and contributing editor to Vanity Fair; Niall Ferguson, the author, Harvard professor, and a featured contributor to Newsweek and The Daily Beast; James Surowiecki, who writes “The Financial Page” column for The New Yorker; and James B. Stewart, the author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has written widely for newspapers and magazines. (Stewart says he’s done no speaking engagements with for-profit sources since he began writing a financial column for The New York Times in June 2011.)