Journalistic indignation and those nice, juicy fees


The Washington media stars are upset because they have been tweaked by the United States Senate.

It's the kind of Beltway story that normal Americans don't care about, but get Capitol insiders all twittering.

The Senate did this by passing a measure that would require journalists who cover Congress to reveal their moonlighting income.

This was obviously aimed at the big-name newspaper columnists and TV blowhards who are paid enormous fees by special interest groups to make speeches.

It's a touchy subject that has been picking up steam since Jim Warren, the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau chief, began writing about it in his Sunday column.

He introduced the now-popular "Cokie Watch," which detailed the conventions and trade organizations that pay Cokie Roberts $30,000 for name-dropping speeches about what's really going on in Washington.

And, of course, Sam Donaldson, at $25,000 for a prolonged babble, and members of the McGoofy Group, "Crossfire" and all the other Washington heavies, who get from $5,000 to $20,000 for their insights into the great issues of the day.

Inspired by Warren's disclosures, the Senate said it would be only fair for journalists to reveal their outside income, since members of Congress have to do the same.

That way, if a journalist takes a speaking fee from a trade association and later writes something nice about that industry, the Senate will know that a conflict of interest exists.

And if there is a field in which members of Congress are world-class experts, it is conflicts of interest.

Naturally, the journalists have indignantly responded that they are not public officials, but are employed in the private sector.

That's true. Journalists are not paid by the taxpayers. If we were, we'd all be living under bridges. Nor do media creatures have to take oaths of office, pass license exams to practice our trade, or even promise to always be good boys and girls and never, ever tell a lie or Santa won't come.

Which is why the Senate measure is silly. Journalists are not any different than bicycle messengers, busboys, punch-press operators, or cabdrivers. Wait, that's a mistake. Cabdrivers have to be licensed and pass a test.

True, it has been said that journalists have a special public trust. I don't know about that. If we have a public trust, how come the public doesn't trust us?

So the Senate has no more business asking journalists to disclose their outside income than anyone else who works in the private sector.

But there's no reason for Washington journalists to get so huffy about it.

One indignant congressional correspondent said: "This is clearly an assault on the freedom of the press. A reporter's qualifications, income and outside interests are matters between that reporter and his or her publisher or news director. They are not the business of the U.S. Senate."

That's probably true. But on the other hand, modern journalists risk sounding foolish when they talk about anything not being someone else's business.

There's very little that is considered private by today's transom-peeking, hamper-sniffing media. If teams of sleuths can trail politicians to see who they are sleeping with, what's wrong with asking the McGoofy Group how many thousands they were paid to get on a stage and make public fools of themselves?

To prove my sincerity, even though I don't cover the Senate, I will voluntarily disclose how much I have made in public speaking fees over the past decade.

My fees amount to exactly $0.00, give or take a zero or two.

That's because I don't make speeches for money.

My feeling is that 50 cents is a fair price for my column, especially since the paper includes all sorts of news, many more erudite columnists, comics, sports, crossword puzzles, obituaries, theater reviews, recipes, ads and much, much more.

For 50 cents, that's a good deal.

But if anyone offered more than 50 cents to find out what I think, I'd feel like a swindler.

And if anyone offered me the awesome bundles that Sam and Cokie and the other Washington darlings pocket, I'd have them restrained and put under observation for their own good.

Besides, the Senate is just pulling the media's chain. Now there will be pompous editorials, screaming matches on the loudmouth public affairs shows, then it will be forgotten and the Washington media stars and the senators will show up at the same dinner parties, do some back-slapping and have a hearty laugh.

And that is the inside story, which didn't cost you a nickel extra.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad