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In senior editor Dave Astor's article on syndicated columnists and their sources of income (“Syndicate Execs Discuss the Latest Paid Pundit Scandal,” January 13), he includes a troubling quote from Tribune Media Services Vice President John Twohey. According to Twohey, “Certainly accepting money from an entity you cover crosses a line. I can imagine exceptions, like going on the lecture circuit.” If accepting outside money—especially from corporations—creates an insurmountable conflict of interest, what difference does it make that the money was derived from a speaking engagement?
Monsanto's 1999 donation to the Hudson Institute to support Michael Fumento's book project allegedly casts a shadow on any future opinion columns he writes, yet the tens (if not hundreds) of thousands in speaking fees earned each year by prominent journalists is assumed to have no impact on their objectivity whatsoever. A quick look over the Web sites of popular speakers bureaus turns up some interesting figures: a keynote speech by the Washington Post's Bob Woodward will cost upwards of $40,000, a chat with News Hour chief health correspondent Susan Dentzer could run an organization as much as $15,000, while an evening with New York Daily News' D.C. bureau chief Tom DeFrank can be had for $7,500.
How is it that an opinion columnist writing from a clear point of view is thought to be damaged by a donation to his non-profit employer, yet straight news reporters are immune to large sums of money they receive directly? When is the last time any of the elite journalists who accept four- and five-figure speaking fees—often from corporations and business associations—made print (or on-air) disclosures during stories related to the industries who have cut them checks? Perhaps when the big guns of journalism meditate on why their own speaking fees are perfectly legitimate, they'll acquire a bit more perspective on the “scandal” of recent weeks.