High profile journalists have been getting millions of dollars in speaking fees in recent years. Lecture fees can be tens of thousands of dollars for a single speech to a business audience. And, according to Howard Kurtz, “the bulk of that money comes from corporations and lobbying organizations with more than a passing interest in the issues the journalists write about and yak about for a living.”
Since 1990 US politicians have been unable to accept speaking fees from interest groups because of the obvious conflict of interest but journalists are often blind to their own conflict of interest. Journalists accepting such fees argue that it does not mean they would give favourable coverage to the corporation providing the fees. However Wall Street Journal bureau chief, Alan Murray, pointed out:
You tell me what is the difference between somebody who works full time for the National Association of Realtors and somebody who takes $40,000 a year in speaking fees from realtor groups. It’s not clear to me there’s a big distinction.
Journalists are generally prohibited by their employers from speaking to groups they are likely to be covering directly and controversy over speaking fees has led the three major television networks to impose restrictions on when their journalists can accept them. But influence is often more subtle than favourable reporting to a particular corporation or association that has paid the fees. It may subconsciously influence the way journalists report on corporate affairs in general and on matters that affect corporate interests, especially since they may be earning as much from such fees as they do from their base salary.
From the point of view of corporations and trade associations paying these fees, what they are getting for their money, apart from the entertainment and glamour that television ‘celebrities’ offer, is the establishment of a good relationship. They figure that by the time the journalist has supped and socialised with their executives and their wives, they are less likely to be subject to hostile reporting and more likely to gain access to the journalist to put their side of the story. "Firms may also use speaking gigs to reward a journalist whom they have reason to believe is
friendly, or at least not inveterately hostile."
Such fees also provide an example to all journalists of how profitable reporting that is favourable to corporations can be. Bud Ward in American Journalism Review described how John Stossel (pictured), once “the scourge of US corporations when he worked as a TV consumer reporter” is now “winning an ardent following in these same circles” doing television programmes such as a special on Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death? (watched by 16 million people) which downplayed environmental and health risks and questioned efforts to regulate those risks. Stossel, who now advocates the elimination of agencies such as the EPA “because they interfere with the market,” has become a star speaker and receives large speaking fees from organisations such as the American Industrial Health Council.
Indeed paying a trusted journalist to narrate a documentary that promotes a corporate view point is a means of buying credibility for it. Walter Cronkite (pictured) from the CBS network, once labelled ‘the most trusted man in America’ accepted a fee of $25,000 from the industry front group American Council on Science and Health to narrate a documentary entitled Big Fears, Little Risks which dismissed fears about pesticides.