At Bloomberg, the company handbook, The Bloomberg Way, states that “Bloomberg journalists may not accept speaking fees” or payment for expenses from any source. There is, however, a loophole: The policy does not cover regular Bloomberg View contributors, a spokeswoman said. Clive Crook, for instance, is a featured columnist who writes about economic policy and financial affairs and is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board but not a full-time Bloomberg staffer; he is thus allowed to give paid speeches to financial firms and does so.

CNBC, which features wall-to-wall coverage of the financial markets, also has admirably tight standards. If star anchor Maria Bartiromo wants to speak at an event for investors, that’s fine, with permission from her bosses, but she cannot be paid. And this rule applies to events sponsored by any other business interest as well as nonprofits.

The bad news is that these institutional ethical standards are likely to become less meaningful as the number of salaried journalists continues to shrink and the ranks of independent journalists, without a permanent staff affiliation, continue to grow. These reporters are free to effectively draft their own ethics policies. In such a media universe, the ethical trajectory is apt to be downward, as experience suggests that it is corporate management that provides the hard push for strict standards.

John Harwood, of CNBC and The New York Times, can attest to the reluctance of journalists to clean up their acts on this front. Back in the mid-1990s, as a Wall Street Journal staffer, he ran for a seat on a committee of correspondents that set the standards for issuing daily press passes to congressional reporters. His sound but un-winning platform: require journalists to disclose sources of outside income, including speaking engagements. His colleagues rejected him for the position.

Speaking fees are “to me more an appearance issue than an actual conflict,” Harwood recently told me, “but nobody should be under the illusion that our credibility doesn’t need shoring up.” Harwood was the journalist, at a GOP debate back in November, who pointedly asked Newt Gingrich what he did for all that consulting dough from Freddie Mac. It’s a good thing he was the one asking that question, with his unimpeachable record of not taking money from the financial industry or other sources. He was throwing a stone, as we journalists are supposed to do in our line of work, and thankfully he was invulnerable to any thrown back at him. 

 

Paul Starobin , a former Moscow bureau chief of Business Week, is the author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age.