Clinton Should Release Transcripts From Paid Speeches - So Should Media Pundits Like Chuck Todd Who Have Grilled Her About It

Election '16

During Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate, NBC moderator Chuck Todd asked Hillary Clinton a series of relatively tough questions about speaking fees totaling $675,000 she received from Goldman Sachs in her years after being Secretary of State. Her response was widelypanned as being tone-deaf. Yet several of her defenders noted on social media that Todd, as well as Anderson Cooper at CNN who had asked Clinton a similar question the night before, routinely receive large speaking fees from institutions they cover. 

Several journalists tweeted out that Clinton’s speaking fees were no big deal because they’re standard practice in the political and media world. Matt Yglesias at Voxsaid he had done a “paid speaking thing on Wall Street” and the Boston Globe's Michael Cohen, who used to work for the State Department, disclosed he had “been paid to give speeches” and Clinton’s fees were therefore no big deal. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg noted“If someone offered me $675,000 for three speeches, I'd probably give the speeches.”

Though they were attempting to dismiss the problem as trivial, they accidently raise an entirely fair double standard—just for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, the response to a double standard isn’t no standard at all, but rather an appeal to have a consistent one.

Just because something is normalized and routine doesn’t make it right. Many outlets, most notably the New York Times, have strict standards on speaking fees and usually disallow them if they are for specific companies (e.g. the Citibank retreat), for exorbitant amounts, or in an area the journalist typically covers. The fact that popular pundits and cable news personalities take large sums from corporate interests to give speeches doesn’t make it okay that Clinton does; it simply means everyone should abide by a set of similar standards—which, according to Todd, is aggressive disclosure.

Obviously, what's at stake for Clinton isn’t the same as for a cable news personality, but the logic should be consistent: if presidential candidates, who are nominally supposed to have an adversarial relationship with powerful corporate interests, should disclose transcripts upon request, shouldn’t those in the media who are nominally supposed to have an adversarial relationship with powerful corporate interests also do so?  

Chuck Todd spoke at a conference for NACHA, or the Electronic Payment Association which lobbies the Federal Reserve, Consumer Financial Services Bureau and U.S. Department of Treasury on behalf of its banking clients. Does he disclose this when reporting on banking? Todd also gave a paid speech at the Security Industry Association, a lobbying organization funded by military contractors. Does Todd disclose this when reporting on military contractors? (Requests to Chuck Todd for comment on this story were not returned.)

Getting paid tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for half-hour speeches is as much about drawing talent as it is thinly veiled influence peddling. To wit, if Goldman Sachs was to have paid Clinton $675,000 outright we would see this as rank corruption; how the addition of a 30-minute speech makes this transaction any less troubling is entirely lost on most people with common sense.

Bernie Sanders is right to note the conflict of interest, and Clinton partisans are right to note the hypocrisy, but the solution shouldn’t be to resign ourselves to a world where this type of revolving door is normalized. We should ask tough question of both the candidate and the influential corporate media who vet them.

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