Journalism Is in a Disastrous State -- But for a Handful of Millionaire Pundits, It's a Wonderful Life
Mainstream journalism is, we’re often told, in a state of severe crisis. Newsroom employment began to decline as a result of corporate takeovers in the 1990s. Then the digital revolution destroyed the advertising market, plunging the industry into serious doubt about its very business model.
But times aren’t rough all around. There are many pundits and TV anchors who are doing very well in the media world, racking up millions of dollars from their media contracts, book deals and lucrative speaking fees. Though they don’t generally approach the compensation packages awarded to network morning show hosts like Matt Lauer or evening anchors like Diane Sawyer, they’re not exactly hurting.
Of course, being the boss means the biggest payday—and media company CEOs have been posting unbelievable incomes. In 2012, CBS head Les Moonves made $62 million, Disney’s Robert Iger made $37 million and Rupert Murdoch ofFox took home a comparatively modest $22 million (New York Times,5/5/13). Don’t feel sorry for Murdoch, though; as No. 91 on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people, with an estimated net worth of $11.2 billion, he’s unlikely to go to bed hungry.
The media business outstrips other industries in generously compensating its top executives (New York Times, 5/5/13), and those resources could of course be put to better use by hiring reporters. But that’s not the way the system works. And it’s not just the bosses getting rich. Indeed, many high-profile members of the media elite live a rather charmed life. The journalism business looks to be in a disastrous state—but the view from the top is just fine.
New York Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman has written a number of bestsellers, and regularly holds forth on outlets like public TV’s Charlie Rose show. All of the globe-trotting and yearning for a “radical centrism” in American politics—where sensible climate policies could be paired with cuts to social spending—have paid off handsomely.
Friedman is married to real estate heiress Ann Bucksbaum, and lives in a “palatial 11,400-square-foot house, now valued at $9.3 million, on a 7½-acre parcel” near the Bethesda Country Club (Washingtonian, 7/1/06).
Like most media figures, Friedman’s compensation is not reported. But by one relatively outdated account (Washingtonian, 7/1/06), “His speaking fee recently passed $50,000; with his Times salary, syndication rights, and royalties from his bestselling books, his annual income easily reaches seven figures.”
Some of Friedman’s extracurricular employment has caused controversy. In 2009, the Times public editor (5/24/09) noted that Friedman’s acceptance of a $75,000 speaking fee from a California government agency violated company guidelines.
But clearly such arrangements are worth the potential trouble. That could explain the existence of The Next New World, a gathering scheduled for June in San Francisco. It was billed as an “invitation-only, highly interactive forum” with CEOs, “tech pioneers” and “influential decision-makers”—and, of course, Tom Friedman.
It’s worth keeping in mind that when you read Friedman (1/6/13) complaining that “Obama has spent a lot of time lately bashing the rich” and insisting that it’s time for him “to stop just hammering the wealthy”—as the action movie clichÃ© puts it, this time it’s personal.
As host of NBC’s Meet the Press, David Gregory is paid to quiz politicians on the tough issues of the day. But he offers his own opinions on the show, too; he’s encouraged the Obama White House to propose “big spending cuts” in order to confuse Republicans (1/27/13;FAIR Blog, 1/29/13). He thinks the White House should have done more to have a “moment in the Rose Garden” with a few corporate CEOs (11/11/12; FAIR Blog, 11/13/12), and demanded to hear more from the White House about the “hard choices” Americans must make to get by with less (1/29/12). He worried about the problem of Occupy activists “demonizing Wall Street” (10/10/11). He expressed concern that the more people criticize big banks, “the closer you get to wiping out the shareholder completely”—a person “who is not just a fat cat” (2/22/09).
In that sense, Gregory is reflecting what passes for conventional wisdom in corporate media—but also among people in Gregory’s economic class. His salary is not disclosed, but his predecessor, Tim Russert, reportedly made more than $5 million a year (Washington Post, 5/23/04). As Politico reported (3/15/12), Gregory was seeking membership in the exclusive Chevy Chase Club, which requires an $80,000 “initiation fee.” Gregory was sponsored by a couple of Washington-area real estate moguls.
Like other members of the media elite, Gregory does speaking gigs on the side—sometimes causing controversy. In 2012 he was a keynote speaker for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a Republican-allied lobbying group (Think Progress, 5/12/12). NBC defended the appearance on the grounds that Gregory was not being paid. Not all of his appearances are free; Gregory can command about $40,000 per appearance (Think Progress,5/12/12). One topic offered by his speakers’ bureau: “The Mainstream Media Under Siege.”
Gregory gave a 2010 keynote address at a conference held by the National Association of Broadcasters, the powerful lobbying arm of the media industry—an event that, according to organizers, would “bring hundreds of radio and television broadcasters to Washington to meet with lawmakers and federal officials on legislative and regulatory issues impacting broadcasters.” Gregory also delivered the keynote at a 2006 awards dinner for something called the Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, which is set up to “promote the geospatial intelligence tradecraft” and use “geospatial intelligence to address national security objectives.”
Gregory is married to Beth Wilkinson, a well-known Washington attorney who works primarily as a defense attorney for corporate clients; she represented mortgage giant Fannie Mae from 2006–08. “She knows everyone in government, and she tells me nothing,” Gregory remarked to the Washington Post (3/14/06), which went on to note that “in his personal life, Gregory also rubs shoulders with newsmakers”; a guest at the couple’s baby shower was then– Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff.
In 2013, Gregory made gossipy news in Washington after apparently becoming incensed about a parking situation near his home (Washington Post,4/10/13). Visitors to the D.C. Design House, an architectural showcase to benefit the Children’s National Medical Center, were evidently clogging up the streets near Gregory’s home. According to one of the designers, Gregory came to the house to very loudly complain on the front lawn. Witnesses claimed that Gregory yelled something about knowing “all the politicians in town,” which the anchor denied.
What’s the “single biggest threat to the U.S.’s fiscal health”? If you’re super-pundit Fareed Zakaria—columnist for Time and the Washington Post, as well as the host of a weekend CNN show—the answer is pensions for public sector workers. That was his message in aTime magazine column (6/25/12) that cheered on Democrats willing to stand up to labor unions.
As CJR.org (3/19/12) reported, Zakaria has given high-priced talks to “numerous financial firms, including Baker Capital, Catterton Partners, Driehaus Capital Management, ING, Merrill Lynch, Oak Investment Partners, Charles Schwab and T. Rowe Price.” The going rate might be in the neighborhood of $75,000, and it apparently doesn’t bother anyone atCNN; a spokes-person told CJR, “We have full confidence in Fareed Zakaria’s professionalism and judgment and do not think his outside speaking appearances interfere with his CNN responsibilities on his weekly show or his commentary on CNN.”
But some have tried to connect the dots between Zakaria’s punditry and the interests paying him that kind of money. In a Web piece for the Boston Review (9/28/12), David V. Johnson wondered if Zakaria’s fracking advocacy has anything to do with speeches he’d given that were in some cases sponsored by or connected to the industries that stand to benefit from increased domestic gas drilling. Before Zakaria’s lecture agent made changes to his speakers’ bio, Johnson noted, one could see praise from an array of corporate sources. (“Perfect for a business audience” was Merrill Lynch’s assessment.)
Keeping track of the many conflicts in Zakaria’s speaking engagements could prove challenging. He was scheduled to deliver keynotes at the Institute of Food Technologists’ 2013 Annual Meeting and Food Expo and at a convention of the Society for Human Resource Management. He moderated a discussion at the 2010 Biotechnology Industry Organization, and appeared at the 2012 Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce conference. He spoke at the 2011 conference of the Insured Retirement Institute (the “primary trade association for annuities”), appeared at a 2009 real estate industry conference (his appearance was co-sponsored by commercial giant Cushman & Wakefield), and spoke at the 2011 TFI World Fertilizer Conference (that was, evidently, a return appearance).
The talks are extremely lucrative, but that kind of money isn’t terribly new to Zakaria: He reportedly purchased a $3.4 million Upper West Side townhouse in 2004 (New York Observer, 9/27/04).
A New York Times profile (8/20/12) made clear that Zakaria is a sought-after guest of the elite—Beverly Hills business partners hosting a dinner to discuss Iraq invited lawmakers, the queen of Jordan and Zakaria. “When he speaks, I listen,” said the host. “I am just so thrilled that he exists, that there is someone like that.”
Time managing editor Richard Stengel called him “one of the premier global intellectuals” (New York Times, (8/19/12); a less generous appraisal of Zakaria came in a book review (New York Observer, 5/12/08) that called him the “multimedia simulacrum of an intellectual.”
Zakaria’s image took a hit when it was revealed that he had plagiarized a section of a column on gun control. The pundit was briefly suspended by Time and CNN (Politico, 8/10/12). But he emerged relatively unscathed—and back on the lecture circuit.
As the political winds at MSNBC have shifted, longtime Hardball host Chris Matthews has tried to go with the flow, adopting a somewhat more liberal outlook in order to keep current.
And it’s certainly a lucrative gig. Though the show does not boast a sizable audience, Matthews reportedly pulls in a salary of about $5 million (New York Times,3/23/09). He lives in a multi-million dollar home in the Maryland suburb of Chevy Chase, a house that the New York Times’ Mark Leibovich (5/13/08) described as “sun-lit, art-filled and cozy, with three Mercedes of various sizes and degrees of wear in the driveway.” Matthews’ wife Kathleen is Marriott International’s executive vice president of global communications and public affairs.
His speaking engagements, arranged by the Washington Speakers Bureau, can run upwards of $40,000 a pop. Matthews has given talks at events like Interphex, “North America’s largest event for the biopharmaceutical manufacturing industry,” as well as the Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators conference and the American Council of Engineering Companies. He appeared at a 2008 conference of the National Association of Realtors, as well as the 2012 Arctic Imperative Summit, an event sponsored by an array of corporate interests to discuss how climate change will create “more viable and efficient shipping corridors.”
He also assured industry leaders at a 2012 cable industry conference that cable news is crucial for critical news media to blossom (FAIR Blog, 5/24/12). It was a strange performance, with Matthews arguing that the Iraq War would have been very difficult to start today thanks to the power of 24-hour cable news: “We are a critical media today.” This would be more compelling if not for the fact that 24-hour cable news had been around for 22 years in 2002.
In spite of his working-class shtick, Matthews has never seemed particularly interested in class issues. He once complained (Hardball, 6/10/05), “I never see a really good articulate labor leader on television.” An odd thing to pontificate about if you’re a TV host, with a great deal of say in who gets to appear on TV. But it’s a good bet that Matthews isn’t spending much time hanging around with union leaders in the first place.
And in complaining about Obama’s lack of leadership, Matthews (Hardball,5/15/13) recalled with great fondness the leadership demonstrated by another president, Ronald Reagan, when he broke the PATCO air traffic controllers’ union. Nothing like a millionaire TV host praising union-busting—on the “liberal” cable channel, no less.
Fox News mainstay Bill O’Reilly has crafted an image as a tough-spoken right-wing populist. O’Reilly would dismiss the political label as “spin,” but there can be no disagreement that the O’Reilly franchise has proven itself to be enormously profitable. Between his top-rated cable show, hit books, live appearances and syndicated columns, O’Reilly reportedly makes in the neighborhood of $15–20 million a year (Business Insider, 9/16/12).
Part of O’Reilly’s branding is that he’s a regular guy, looking out for other regular guys. “We’re the only show from a working-class point of view,” he explained early on (Washington Post, 12/13/00). O’Reilly’s humble origins are an important part of his backstory. “You don’t come from any lower than I came from on an economic scale,” he wrote in his first book—an odd claim from someone who grew up in middle-class Long Island, the son of an oil company accountant (Extra!, 8/01).
More often, O’Reilly’s commentary on the state of the economy sounds more like what you’d expect from a multi-millionaire: The Bush tax cuts were great for government revenues (FAIR Blog, 8/9/11), and raising the tax rate on Mitt Romney’s capital gains income would amount to unjust double taxation (FAIR Blog, 1/19/12). Talk of raising taxes on the wealthy prompted O’Reilly (9/19/11) to threaten to walk away from it all: “If Barack Obama begins taxing me more than 50 percent, which is very possible, I don’t know how much longer I’m going to do this.”
And protests that sought to battle inequality were a problem, as he explained (10/28/11):
The Occupy Wall Street Movement is not a spontaneous protest against economic inequality. It is a well-thought-out campaign to bring down the infrastructure of this country, to turn us into a Western European–type entitlement state.
When a New York Times poll (3/1/11) found most people opposed attacking the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers, and opposed the idea of cutting pay and benefits in the name of deficit reduction, O’Reilly (3/1/11) had a solution: They shouldn’t have polled so many union households: “If you subtract them, those who favor cutting benefits win the poll,” he asserted.
Nor are his discussions of poverty in America very supportive or understanding of working-class perspectives. “There is a reason for poverty in America,” O’Reilly explained (7/20/11). “There’s almost always a reason attached to poverty. And it’s not the capitalist system’s fault. It’s usually personal responsibility or something like that.”
In addition to his substantial Fox contract (upwards of $10 million a year—New York Times, 4/19/12), O’Reilly also has a side career giving speeches. Like his millionaire media colleagues, O’Reilly appears at trade shows and corporate groups like the 2011 Ad Specialty Industry conference (where he appeared alongside TV liberal James Carville) and the 2012 International Franchise Association Annual Convention.
O’Reilly has also been doing a series of live events that combine punditry and what you might call stand up comedy. The current iteration, the “Bolder Fresher Tour,” features O’Reilly alongside right-wing comedian Dennis Miller. On the previous version of the tour, Glenn Beck was the co-star.
“It’s a good night for the folks, it’s a good night for me,” O’Reilly explains in the Web trailer for the current tour. With VIP tickets selling for over $500 to a New York show, it’s certainly good for someone.