Deborah Howell, the ombudsman at the Washington Post, weighed in this morning about Bob Woodward’s and David Brooder’s extracurricular activities as buckakers– speaking to corporate and political groups with an interest in their work, without disclosing details of the fees they received for those those speaking engagements not only to their readers, but even to their own editors.
During her tenure as ombudsman– many in the Post’s own newsroom– say that she has transformed the ombudsman’s position at the paper into one where she acts more like a reader representative, spokesperson, or even public relations spokesperson for the Post. Her predecessor, Michael Getler, radically transformed the role of ombudsman– criticizing, questioning, even playing investigative reporter at times. The contrast between what the two of them have written, and the role they perceive an ombudsman to play, is striking.
But here is some of what Howell had to write this morning:
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.
The Post Stylebook’s ethics and standards section says only: “We freelance for no one and accept no speaking engagements without permission from department heads.” Broder and Woodward did not check with editors on the appearances Silverstein mentioned.
Free speeches are no problem unless they create the appearance of an endorsement, said Executive Editor Len Downie. The Post has its own community speakers bureau, which pays staffers $100 a speech. As a rule, journalists are not to take fees or awards from government agencies, partisan groups or special-interest groups that focus mainly on lobbying. Speaking to educational or nonprofit groups for fees may be approved; whether to allow expenses to be paid is decided case by case. Downie unearthed a 1995 memo outlining the rules on speeches, but it is not widely known about in the newsroom.
Silverstein said an Internet search showed that Broder made a number of speeches to business groups, including the Western Conference of Prepaid Medical Service Plans, a group of nonprofit health plans; the National Association of Manufacturers, which met at a Florida resort; a Northern Virginia Association of Realtors fundraiser; and the American Council for Capital Formation, a nonprofit group promoting smaller government and lower taxes. Broder said he attended an ACCF dinner but did not give a speech and that he spoke free to the NAM and the health-care group. Silverstein said Broder also spoke to the Gartner Healthcare Summit in 2007. He was advertised as a speaker on an Internet site, but Broder said he canceled the engagement.
Broder said the groups paid his expenses. He received two speech fees — about $7,000 from the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, and, in 2006, he accepted $12,000 from the Minnesota League of Cities. Mary Beth Coya, the Realtors’ senior vice president for public and governmental affairs, said the event was not a fundraiser but was attended by elected officials “to promote our government affairs programs.”
Broder and his wife, Ann, also took free passage on the 2007 Seabourn Cruise Line‘s 13-night “Rio and the Amazon” cruise in exchange for three speeches about presidents he has covered.
Broder said he adheres to “the newspaper’s strict rules on outside activities” and “additional constraints of my own. I have never spoken to partisan gatherings in any role other than a journalist nor to an advocacy group that lobbies Congress or the federal government. Virtually all of the speeches I have made have been to college or civic audiences.”
The NAM, the ACCF and the national parents of the Minnesota group and Northern Virginia Realtors do lobby Congress. Broder later said he broke the rules on those speeches. He also said he had cleared his speeches with Milton Coleman, deputy managing editor, or Tom Wilkinson, an assistant managing editor, but neither remembered him mentioning them. Wilkinson said Broder had cleared speeches in the past. Editors should have been consulted on all of the speeches as well as the cruise.
Broder for what it is worth was at least apologetic and remorseful. He told Howell: “I am embarrassed by these mistakes and the embarrassment it has caused the paper,” Broder said.
And Woodward? Was he remorseful that he put his colleagues and his newspaper in an embarrassing position?
Not so much.
One of Woodward’s excuses, according to Howell, is this:
He said he believes he is complying with Post policy, which he called “fuzzy and ambiguous. The question is: Where does the money go? I don’t keep the money. It’s a straight shot into the foundation that gives money to legitimate charities. I think that’s doing good work. My wife and I made a commitment to do this.”
The obvious question is why, if Woodward is correct, the Post’ policy is “fuzzy and ambiguous.”
As for Len Downie, the editor of the Post, his comments to his own ombudsman, at the very least lends an appearance that he doesn’t take this very seriously. Howell writes: “Downie unearthed a 1995 memo outlining the rules on speeches, but it is not widely known about in the newsroom.”
Len Downie is famously known for saying that he would prefer that his reporters not vote because to vote might not only create questions about only their objectivity, but also Downie’s newspaper.
So if one gets this straight, by voting one might be raising questions about their journalistic objectivity, but allowing your top reporters to take tens of thousands of dollars in fees for speaking engagements by those who might want to curry favor with them is no big deal at all?
Memo to Howie Kurtz: Time to weigh in.
And if the editor of the Washington Post still thinks that this is no big deal, Howell can do it for him:
Broder, 78, has worked at The Post 42 years, been its premier political writer and is probably the country’s best-known political columnist. Woodward is the rare print reporter who became rich and famous on investigative journalism.
Broder and Woodward are franchise players for the Post, not just a couple of kids on the Maryland news desk. But even if they were, a newspaper should not only be careful about such matters but should– in my view– disclose everything:
Woodward should disclose every speaking fee he has received in recent years, and the Post should publicly post that information. I’m going to actually put the question to Howell, and if she responds in any way, I will post it.
Woodward has received at least $1 million in speaking fees, if Ken Silverstein is correct, and yet we don’t who he spoke to and how much he has been paid. Why keep it a secret? A reporter who has made his reputation off Watergate and decrying government secrecy should have nothing to hide. Nor should those who have paid him.
In the meantime, much more important and better than informed than anything I might say, here is what Ken Silverstein has to say about Howell’s column.