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Sunday Late Night: OmbudsAndy Takes Broder’s Word For It

Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote this weekend about speaking fees for WaPo staff — and contractors. Bought-out journalists who’ve been retained by the Post on a contract basis, or retained for a pittance to lend their credibility to the Post, seem not to be following the rules of their contracts that state they’ll clear their outside-group appearances (and fees) with their supervisors.

I’m going to lay to the side the propriety of Bob Woodward (who earns $100 a month for his regular non-appearance at the Post) funding an eponymous charitable foundation with his speaking fees: a foundation whose primary purpose seems to be to make contributions to the Sidwell Friends School, which the Woodward and Obama offspring attend.

But David Broder — associated with the Post since 1966, nominally the Dean of The Washington Press Corps, and the journalist most often mentioned by both seasoned pundits and young up-and-comers as their ‘most-admired-and-alive’ mentor (Russert being dead) — has a sweet deal too.

First, let OmbudsAndy frame the issue:

The Post has stringent newsroom policies governing paid speeches by its journalists. Honoraria or expense reimbursement may be accepted only if there is no reasonable suggestion that the money would influence Post coverage. Supervisors must approve speaking invitations.

But policies are less clear, and enforcement less rigorous, for those who work for The Post on contract. Their numbers have grown in recent years as The Post has cut costs by nudging some of its best people to take buyouts and continue working on contract. The result is a growing class of Post journalists who operate with less oversight, and sometimes under different rules.

Of course, there’s different rules for Fred Hiatt’s Opinion hothouse flowers: he trusts them to come to him if there are disclosure issues he needs to know about. (This from an editorial page editor whose ethics allowed him to overlook mentioning Liz Cheney’s parentage when she penned a piece defending her father’s policies.)

And Fred’s disclose-if-you-must policy appears to apply to Broder, no longer a Post employee but now a contracted bee:

Opinion columnists who work on contract and appear on The Post’s editorial page are not bound by the newsroom’s policies, said Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt. But he said that he expects them to “come to me if they think there is any conflict of interest that readers should know about.”

This would affect well-known names such as veteran political columnist David S. Broder, who has been working on contract and writing only an opinion column for more than two years. Broder said that he averages about one paid speech a month, mostly to college audiences, at fees of as much as $10,000.

That’s where Andy leaves things with Broder: what he told Andy appears to be the end of the story. OmbudsAndy let Broder get away with this fast-talking about his outside gigs, their locales and fees. Despite evidence, laid out carefully by Ken Silverstein, that something else entirely is taking place. Silverstein portrays one of Broder’s recent gigs, decidedly not college audience in orientation:

Last May, Broder was the keynote speaker at a May 19 to 21 conference sponsored by GenSpring Family Offices, “a leading wealth management firm for ultra-high net worth families. With over $20 billion in assets under advisement, GenSpring…is trusted by more than 700 of the world’s wealthiest families to oversee or manage important aspects of their financial lives.” GenSpring is an affiliate of SunTrust Banks, which lobbies congress. The conference, called the “Men’s Retreat,” was held at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida. The conference offered “an opportunity for men to learn and network together, attend and participate in provocative and timely meetings covering the gamut of wealth related topics presented and facilitated by key GenSpring experts as well as select guest speakers who are renowned experts in the fields of finance, communication, health, and wealth preservation.”

Despite the conclusions reached by Deborah Howell, OmbudsAndy’s predecessor (who dealt with Silverstein’s previous coverage of this topic with considerably more rigor) that:

Fees should be accepted only from educational, professional or other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and politics are not a major focus — with no exceptions.

… it’s pretty clear that GenSpring’s enterprise has a lobbying focus:

Among the panelists was Patricia Soldano, a lobbyist who heads up GenSpring’s office in southern California and who is president of the Policy and Taxation Group, “an organization that educates on the destructive effects of the estate tax to families and their businesses.” In other words, the conference Broder spoke at was not only hosted by a business with significant interests in Washington, but the group’s lobbying agenda was a notable component of the event.

More than two years ago, Howell summarized Silverstein’s discussion of Broder’s outside speaking this way:

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.”

“Government affairs programs” = lobbying, in DC-speak.

But Broder hasn’t changed one iota.

The Dean still speaks before groups for pay, and then writes about the subject they are lobbying about:

Broder writes about financial reform and tax policy with some regularity. Last July, two months after the GenSpring affair, he wrote a column in which he cited a poll by a group called Third Way which asked whether voters would prefer job creation programs that relied on new government investments or cutting taxes on business. “Cutting taxes on business won 54 percent to 32 percent,” Broder wrote. “This sounds to me like Ronald Reagan returning to whomp Barack Obama. Maybe all the Republicans have to do is to reject the Bush label and bring Reagan back for an encore.”

In September he wrote a column saying that President Obama “is now prepared to adopt business’ own favorite remedy, and subsidize private firms in hopes they will invest and hire more rapidly…This is the kind of tax reform Republicans can love, and it has now been placed on offer by a Democratic president, even before the election results are weighed.”

Dean Broder has long outlived his usefulness as a commentator, and it’s clear from OmbudsAndy’s column that the Post doesn’t care to question his statements on the subject of outside speaking engagements and fees.

And Broder won’t answer questions about it now:

I emailed Broder and Woodward for comment. Neither replied, just as they ignored requests for comment two years ago. Howell told me at the time that Broder didn’t reply because my questions about his speaking gigs “annoyed” him. That’s a strange posture for a journalist, to put it mildly.

I guess Broder was also ‘annoyed’ by OmbudsAndy’s questions. Since there don’t seem to be any followups at all. Just taking The Dean’s word for it, despite recent evidence.

The Post won’t monitor Broder’s appearances (and fees) and thoughtfully append a disclosure statement: something like “This contract employee of the Washington Post recently accepted a speaking fee from an organization, XYZ Trade Group, that proposes and lobbies for identical views expressed here” would work, right? So, the paper’s dwindling readership — and young journalists who look up to Broder — would do well to keep in mind that Broder’s views may not be his own. They may be purchased by a lobby shop, as a recent speaking fee.

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