Let’s talk about paid speeches, baby

A relatively recent post of mine sparked some debate in the comments below between Deux Ex Malcontent blogger Chez Pazienza and me. After the debate, a reader asked us for our opinions on the case of Washington Post writers David Broder and Bob Woodward.

First, here is a short summary of the backstory via WaPo ombudsman Deborah Howell’s column:

The propriety of David Broder and Bob Woodward taking fees or having expenses paid for speeches to special-interest groups was raised recently by Ken Silverstein, Washington editor of Harper’s magazine, in his Washington Babylon blog. Silverstein found the fees unseemly and asked whether editors had approved them.

This is my response:

This is a mistake of both the newspaper and the writers.

I like to believe journalists want to keep their credibility intact. I also like to believe that newspapers would set some specific guidelines so journalists could ensure they keep their credibility intact. That’s not always the case. Here, the newspaper has vague guidelines on speeches.

Even so, I can’t let Broder off very easily. He should know better! Even if he didn’t mean to look sketchy, you can’t really avoid that when you’re accepting $12,000 from a special interest group for a speech or letting them pay for your expenses at some fancy hotel in Florida.

Now, if there were extenuating circumstances such as your house getting foreclosed on, I could understand that. It doesn’t make it right, but I can’t say I would blame anyone for that.

Broder also said he ran it by his editors, but they forgot. I can see how that would happen because editors are generally very busy and have 500 thoughts running through their heads at once. But I can’t help but wonder – is this really WaPo’s speech request procedure? They don’t have a form to fill out or some kind of intranet request thingy? Honestly, I’m a little surprised at how informal that approach is. It seems like an easy way to slip into a troublesome situation.

Broder has said he’s embarrassed by the mistakes made and the embarrassment he brought the paper. This makes me think all of this was unintentional. Yet he should really know better than that, especially after working at WaPo for 30 some odd years.

Woodward is in a much different scenario than Broder. Unlike Broder, Woodward gave the money from his speeches to charity. While I still don’t like that Woodward was speaking at these events, I’m not going to condemn him for using the money in a noble manner.

The bottom line is that he didn’t keep it for himself, which makes me less inclined to think he’s doing something shady. And I’m not sure if you can really be swayed by money you don’t keep; it’s not like you owe an organization anything when it doesn’t pay your bills.

I realize the situation is very unclear, but those are my thoughts based on the information I’ve been given. If anyone has anything else they’d like to add, I’d really like to read it.

3 Responses to Let’s talk about paid speeches, baby

  1. Megan Taylor says:

    Soapbox! Soapbox! Soapbox!

    Don’t you wish we actually had soapboxes to stand on?

  2. mccxxiii says:

    Before you canonize Woodward on this, take a closer look at the “charity” to which Woodward gave the money.

    http://harpers.org/archive/2008/06/hbc-90003094

    He donated the money to his own foundation, which in turn gave the bulk of it to Sidwell Friends School. That’s a very posh, very wealthy private school in Washington D.C. They recently completed a brand new parking deck that has an athletic field on top of it. Middle/upper school tuition is $27,790 a year, plus textbooks.

    I don’t fault Woodward for wanting to support a school, but I wouldn’t characterize this whole thing as “noble” when a rich school gets richer and he gets a tax advantage.

  3. @MCCXXIII – As I said in the post, I wasn’t aware of all the details of this case. The information you’ve provided definitely makes Woodward’s motives more questionable than I originally thought, and I’m glad you shared it with me (and anyone else who reads this post).

    I’m still not fully sure how I feel about this whole situation, but this information should definitely be evaluated with everything else. I think this whole case is pretty sketch overall, though.

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