Enron Paid Off Top Journalists in Return for ... What?
Fifteen years ago, when I was a lowly intern at The New Republic, editor Michael Kinsley used to vehemently decry the increasing tendency of Washington journalists to seek income from places other than their primary employers. Specifically, Kinsley was appalled by the fact that every so often, New Republic writers Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke would rush out of the office to chat away on "The McLaughlin Group."
So Kinsley taped a large gold bell to a shelf prominently positioned outside his office and wrote "Buckraking Bell" on a sign next to it. Every time Barnes or Kondracke rushed off to a TV studio, someone was supposed to ring the bell. The problem, Kinsley rightly argued, was that television degraded the quality of their work. Could you trust what Barnes wrote in the magazine if you saw him screaming like a crazy man in a shout-'em-up with John McLaughlin?
These days, Kinsley's bell would be ringing like a fire alarm. More and more print journalists are earning their keep from activities that subvert the integrity of their writing. But now, the scale is different. At the time, panelists on "The McLaughlin Group" were paid a few hundred bucks a show. Now writers receive tens of thousands of dollars to appear on television, give speeches -- and, apparently, influence-peddle for massive corporations.
Thanks to Andrew Sullivan and his website, AndrewSullivan.com, we now know that the Enron Corporation paid at least four journalists to serve on some sort of advisory panel which, even the journalists admit, seemed to have no tangible function. (Full disclosure: Though we usually disagree about politics, Sullivan is a friend.)
For the past two weeks, Sullivan has been crusading against Paul Krugman of The New York Times, The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, National Review Online columnist Lawrence Kudlow, and Sunday Times of London columnist Irwin Stelzer. Krugman, Kudlow, and Stelzer received $50,000 from Enron; Kristol, $100,000. Also roped in was Peggy Noonan, who was hired by Enron to write speeches before she became a columnist.
Noonan's speechwriting doesn't strike me as objectionable. (More full disclosure: Noonan and I employ the same literary agent.) But the other four journalists are in a jam. They accepted a lot of money in return for -- what? Access? Positive coverage? Advice? It isn't clear. And their disclosure of their Enron cash was either incomplete or nonexistent.
Of the four, only Krugman preemptively disclosed that he had been on Enron's payroll, and he carefully avoided mentioning the amount involved, because like it or not, taking fifty grand from a company seems a lot more problematic than receiving a $250 honorarium. Meanwhile, all four men were either writing about Enron or editing magazines that were.
Sullivan's buckraking muckraking has caused journalists to start sinking their fangs into each other, arguing over who should disclose what and when, and whether conservatives or liberals are more at fault. It's an unattractive sight, like watching a fender bender turn into a forty-car crash. But the argument over who's to blame misses the larger point that Sullivan is rightly making: Journalists shouldn't accept money from outside sources. Period.
Now, such purity will never happen, simply because many journalists long to live as well as the people they cover in higher-paying professions such as business, law, and even politics. It's hard to earn $50,000 a year and cover sleazy lobbyists and political consultants who are pulling down $500,000.
The culture of corruption is seductive -- especially in Washington, where journalists in recent years have only gotten cozier and cozier with public officials. Remember when NPR's legal correspondent Nina Totenberg had Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg officiate at her wedding? Talk about a conflict of interest.
If journalists want to retain any more credibility than politicians, they should spurn all monies for anything not directly associated with journalism. If they do take outside income, they should disclose it -- before they're writing about any related subject. It's not hard to do. The Web would be an easy avenue of disclosure. Or some neutral body, like the Columbia Journalism School, could collect the information.
Journalism is a great profession. You get to do work that you love, and, much of the time, you get to make a decent living. But it's never going to be the financial equivalent of investment banking. Journalists who try to make it that way might want to consider another career.
Richard Blow is a journalist living in New York who wrote this piece for TomPaine.com. His book, American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr., will be published in May by Henry Holt.