Paul Starobin has a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review about financial journalists who take speaking fees from the subjects they cover. And what you learn from the story, in my opinion, is that this is just another form of lobbying.
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.)
“I turn down 20 paid gigs for every one that I do, and I don’t particularly like to do them,” Lewis said in an e-mail. “Raising of course the question of why do any paid speeches for anyone, the answer to which is: a) it feels insane not to do a few of them; b) it actually helps me, as a writer, to be forced to air views and material in front of a live audience; and c) I often pick up valuable material from the hosts.” [...]
Fees vary widely. Niall Ferguson’s “booking fee range” is $50,001 and up, according to the All American Speakers website. In 2011, he spoke at a Las Vegas conference sponsored by Skybridge Capital that The Economist called the “Davos for the hedge-fund world.” He didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Fareed Zakaria, host of the weekly CNN show Fareed Zakaria GPS, has a rate of $75,000, as reported in Harper’s. His general topic on the show is geopolitics, but he has covered Occupy Wall Street and the European financial crisis and interviewed Mohamed A. El-Erian, the CEO of the investment firm Pimco. Over the years, he has been retained for speeches by numerous financial firms, including Baker Capital, Catterton Partners, Driehaus Capital Management, ING, Merrill Lynch, Oak Investment Partners, Charles Schwab, and T. Rowe Price, according to the website of the Royce Carlton speakers bureau.
There’s nothing inherently illegal about this, and I suppose journalists can contort themselves into believing there’s nothing unethical either. But it’s certainly not something that gets promoted next to someone’s byline. You never hear about the trading of tens of thousands of dollars between Wall Street firms and “star” reporters. What’s more, a good deal of the reporters in Starobin’s piece wouldn’t even talk about their speaking fees on the record.
And I think the goal is just to marinate these reporters in a particular worldview, a very comfortable one, around very rich people with nice suits and good food. As Yves Smith writes, “We are much easier to manipulate than we want to believe.” When you spend time around people, you’re simply less likely to be uncharitable toward them in your professional dealings. They become peers rather than subjects for inquiry. And that changes the dynamic.
This isn’t limited to journalism, of course. Members of Congress get giant raises totaling over 1,000% to go to K Street to lobby. And often they revolve right back from K Street and Wall Street into the public sector again. Journalists are part of this complex. Two of the past four White House Press Secretaries were journalists. The Obama Administration has hired Rosa Brooks and Jay Carney and several other former journalists. And everyone gives speeches to everyone else, and everyone pays everyone else for the privilege. They call it a Village for a reason.
…I should give respect to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and CNBC, who actually ban their journalists from giving paid speeches (Bloomberg View editorialists are exempted from this).