Speaking of The New Yorker.

Media criticism.
Dec. 3 2004 1:28 AM

Money Talks

How closely should The New Yorker police its writers' speaking engagements?

(Continued from Page 1)

None of this is to suggest that The New Yorker should get an ethical pass. Earlier this year (Feb. 2, 2004), David Carr of the New York Times questioned the nature of Gladwell's relationship with Simmons Market Research, which said it had formed "a research advisory alliance" with the writer. Remnick writes that Gladwell canceled that arrangement with the company in its infancy. "[H]e spoke at their luncheon for a fee; that was the sum total of his activity, and then, after it came up as an issue, we discussed it, and that was that," Remnick writes.

When a writer contributes on such a wide range of topics as does Gladwell to The New Yorker—science, marketing, medicine, merchandising, health, fashion, race, advertising education, sociology, you name it—it becomes almost impossible to name his "beat." If you can't name his beat, how do you locate his potential conflicts? Do we really want to ban the writer who writes about everything from speaking about anything? I think not.

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Drawing lines is easier when considering Surowiecki. He writes almost exclusively about business and economics in The New Yorker for its "Financial Page" column. He started lecturing for profit earlier this year after publishing his book The Wisdom of Crowdsand says that in his eight or nine paid engagements he has spoken only about his book. He insists he's never taken money from any entity he's written about or plans to write about and that he wouldn't write about anybody he'd taken money from. Surowiecki is currently booked to speak at the Real Estate Connect 2005 conference. If you can determine the organization's agenda and explain how he might compromise the magazine by speaking there, please drop me a line. (Interest declared: I've edited Surowiecki and consider him a friend.)

How much should journalists disclose about their outside sources of earned income? In 1990, Michael Willrich (an employee of mine at the time) proposed in a Washington Monthlyfeature that reporters reveal everything but their 1040s to demonstrate their impeccable ethical hygiene.

I didn't agree with Willrich's one-size-fits all prescription then, and I don't today. For example, it would be scandalous for a Washington Post reporter covering the auto industry to accept money from General Motors. But should the same author be barred from accepting a speaker's fee from the Detroit Chamber of Commerce to discuss a book he's written about the rollover dangers posed by SUVs if some of the chamber's money comes from automaker coffers? At some point the over-policing of appearances of conflict of interest becomes farce.

Hard-core press ethicists maintain that speaking fees—and other sources of outside earned income—corrupt journalists in two ways: They encourage them to write flattering things about their patrons or, like an insurance policy, they buy their silence.

But the paying groups don't think they're buying the speaker, they think they're buying amusement or edification. They want somebody well-known to do the talking so they can brag about it later, and they don't mind spending big bucks. Recently, a top speaker's agent told the Conference Board's Across the Board magazine that the fees paid to speakers sound exorbitant, but when you factor in the "cumulative value" of a roomful of senior executives, "a $50,000 speaker's fee is a modest part of an event's cost."

I don't see how I can refute the argument that speaking fees buy the future silence of journalists. No matter how industrious, every journalist will leave a hundred million topics untouched before he dies. How does one determine which topics the writer abandoned because he received a speaker's fee, and which ones he abandoned because he wasn't interested? If it were really that easy to purchase the silence of writers, I'd gladly dip into personal savings to throttle a few.

I hope I haven't given the impression that Remnick and I agree about press ethics: He's a hawk on the subject while I'm a dove. He agonizes over whether the rules that apply to a full-time staff writer should also apply to a once-a year-contributor. If I were editor of The New Yorker, I would not.

Where Remnick and I agree, I think, is that the best place to judge journalists is on the printed page. It's fine with me if you want to track reporters' extracurricular paydays. Now and again, I'm certain that you'll uncover a louse or even a family of lice! But unless you can tie a reporter's financial interests or personal relationships to unsound journalism, I'm not your cop. Send your anonymous e-mails elsewhere.

******

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