A deep cynic might read Ken Silverstein’s recent reporting on David Broder and Bob Woodward having collected speaking fees (and other perks) from organizations that might sometimes lobby decision-makers and think, what’s so shocking about a couple of Big Foot Beltway Journalists holding themselves above the rules that might crimp the extracurricular money-making activities of their colleagues? But to read Deborah Howell’s report on the matter is to come upon another question: Rules? What rules?
Backing up a bit: yesterday “the country’s best-known political columnist,” David Broder, told told Howell, the Washington Post’s ombud: “I am embarrassed by these mistakes and the embarrassment it has caused the paper.”
Which mistakes? Broder told Howell: “I have never spoken to partisan gatherings in any role other than a journalist nor to an advocacy group that lobbies Congress or the federal government. Virtually all of the speeches I have made have been to college or civic audiences.”
Howell tells readers:
The NAM, the ACCF and the national parents of the Minnesota group and Northern Virginia Realtors do lobby Congress. Broder later said he broke the rules on those speeches. He also said he had cleared his speeches with Milton Coleman, deputy managing editor, or Tom Wilkinson, an assistant managing editor, but neither remembered him mentioning them. Wilkinson said Broder had cleared speeches in the past. Editors should have been consulted on all of the speeches as well as the cruise. [Broder and his wife “took free passage on the 2007 Seabourn Cruise Line’s 13-night ‘Rio and the Amazon’ cruise in exchange for three speeches about presidents he has covered.”]
For his part, Bob Woodward, rather than having us all focus on whether he may have run afoul of any rules, argues that “the question is: Where does the money go? I don’t keep the money. It’s a straight shot into the foundation that gives money to legitimate charities.” (Or, per Silverstein, a straight shot into “your own personal charity, and you get a tax break, and most of the contributions go to elite causes of direct interest to the donor.”) Besides, Woodward tells Howell, the Post’s rules are “fuzzy and ambiguous.”
Howell attempted to outline those rules, such as they are:
The Post Stylebook’s ethics and standards section says only: “We freelance for no one and accept no speaking engagements without permission from department heads.” Broder and Woodward did not check with editors on the appearances Silverstein mentioned.
Free speeches are no problem unless they create the appearance of an endorsement, said Executive Editor Len Downie. The Post has its own community speakers bureau, which pays staffers $100 a speech. As a rule, journalists are not to take fees or awards from government agencies, partisan groups or special-interest groups that focus mainly on lobbying. Speaking to educational or nonprofit groups for fees may be approved; whether to allow expenses to be paid is decided case by case. Downie unearthed a 1995 memo outlining the rules on speeches, but it is not widely known about in the newsroom.
A little-known memo from 1995 which declares “our one ironclad rule is, no surprises. Please remember to clear all outside activities with your supervisor.” So in the case of Broder and Woodward, I guess: Surprise!?
Also: Silverstein writes that Howell’s column is “not as disappointing as I had feared,” but you can detect a hint of disappointment nonetheless from Silverstein’s headline (“David Broder’s and Bob Woodward’s Lame Alibis”) to his lament that “Howell goes very easy on Broder—who has been flagrantly dishonest with his own employer and with Howell-and Woodward, who is allowed to glide away from some very embarrassing matters. Also, Howell deals with only a few speeches by Woodward and Broder, even though Woodward gave dozens and Broder gave roughly a score… [S]he could have mentioned prominently the fact that the two men, and especially Woodward, are regulars on the talk circuit and that the problem is not restricted to the few speeches she discusses in her column.”
Liz Cox Barrett is a freelance writer and graphic designer in Kalispell, Montana. She worked as a newspaper journalist in Denver and Kalispell for 20 years.