Saturday, June 21, 2008

Conflict of Interest? At the Washington Post? You Don't Say...

While we tend to avoid talking about the media when it talks about itself, there was a curious disclosure this past week about concern troll extraordinaire David Broder and his practice of giving speeches to people in exchange for money.

The propriety of David Broder and Bob Woodward taking fees or having expenses paid for speeches to special-interest groups was raised recently by Ken Silverstein, Washington editor of Harper's magazine, in his Washington Babylon blog. Silverstein found the fees unseemly and asked whether editors had approved them.

Broder, 78, has worked at The Post 42 years, been its premier political writer and is probably the country's best-known political columnist. Woodward is the rare print reporter who became rich and famous on investigative journalism.

Both took an early retirement buyout last month. Broder continues as a columnist on contract. (Disclosure: I have known Broder for more than 25 years and consider him a professional friend.) Woodward has ties to the paper going back to the Watergate scandal, and he still consults for the paper. He has a token contract for $1,200 a year, and he said he is available for consultation and assignment.

The Post Stylebook's ethics and standards section says only: "We freelance for no one and accept no speaking engagements without permission from department heads." Broder and Woodward did not check with editors on the appearances Silverstein mentioned.

Thanks for the disclosure. It's always great to kick off a blog post by quoting an ombudsman. The problem is, everything Howell wrote is fairly self-serving and glosses over what really went on. Silverstein responds:

Howell acknowledges that Broder and Woodward broke the Post’s own rules and “did not check with editors on the appearances Silverstein mentioned.” She extracts an apology from Broder, and says the Post “needs an unambiguous, transparent well-known policy on speaking fees and expenses. . . . 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.”

But Howell goes very easy on Broder—who has been flagrantly dishonest with his own employer and with Howell–and Woodward, who is allowed to glide away from some very embarrassing matters. Also, Howell deals with only a few speeches by Woodward and Broder, even though Woodward gave dozens and Woodward gave roughly a score. I understand that she could not deal with each instance individually (nor did I), but she could have mentioned prominently the fact that the two men, and especially Woodward, are regulars on the talk circuit and that the problem is not restricted to the few speeches she discusses in her column.

Broder first told Howell, “I have never spoken to partisan gatherings in any role other than [that of] a journalist nor to an advocacy group that lobbies Congress or the federal government.” That turned out to be false, as Howell discovered, so Broder came back to say, “I am embarrassed by these mistakes and the embarrassment it has caused the paper.”

Broder told Howell he attended an event at the American Council for Capital Formation, “but did not give a speech.” So apparently someone at the ACCF made up this account of Broder’s speech to the group?

I reported that Broder gave a speech at a meeting of the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors (which paid him, he now admits, $7,000), which was a PAC fundraiser. Howell writes: “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’.” The event in fact was clearly promoted as a PAC fundraiser. And by the way, “government affairs program” is Washington-talk for lobbying.

I also reported that Broder 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,” Howell reported. That’s possible, but since Broder has been so dishonest about all of this I wouldn’t take it to the bank. (I did note in my earlier posts on this topic that I could not confirm all details, in part because neither Broder nor Woodward replied to requests for comment about their speaking gigs.)

Howell doesn’t mention this—Post reporters, it seems, will call people to ask about their actions but won’t take calls about their own. More outrageous is that Broder specifically denied to Howell that I had sought comment from him (which I know only because Howell told me during a phone conversation), even though I contacted him several times, by phone and email, beginning forty-eight hours before posting the first story.


Finally, Woodward told Howell “all his speaking fees — which range from $15,000 to $60,000 — go to a foundation he started in the 1990s.” He added, “It’s a straight shot into the foundation that gives money to legitimate charities. I think that’s doing good work.”

St. Woodward can don his halo and gaze in the mirror all he likes, but he really shouldn’t treat Post readers with such contempt. The facts are clear. He reaps significant tax savings by giving the fees to a “charity” that gives away a small fraction of its assets, and by far the biggest beneficiary of his foundation is Sidwell Friends, the elite private school sitting atop a reported $30 million endowment and attended by his own children.

How can we believe anything that David Broder or Bob Woodward publish after this? Both got caught with their hands in the cookie jar and both got caught by Silverstein's legwork and reporting. They got caught, they lied, they twisted in the wind, and then they were nailed for what they had done.

The Washington media elite does whatever the hell it wants, and who are we to judge? These people are the serious people, after all, and what's a few hundred grand here and there between the elite and the rabble who are to hang on their every word? If you ever want to get to the "why" about things--as in, "why are we in Iraq?" and "why did the press let Bush get away with destroying the Constitution?" and "why do they tell us it's raining when they're all pissing on our legs?" you need look no further than the system which allows a David Broder to become America's concern troll and Woodward to become the insider with inside information that makes people like Bush look one way when, if the "insider" had done his job, he would have revealed a mountain of evidence that would have shown every single American that Bush had no idea what the hell he was doing when he ordered US troops to invade Iraq.

Broder and Woodward may have come to Washington to write stories that would challenge the status quo, but here at the end of their careers they have become the status quo, they have become the so-called elite without having risen by a merit system but having risen by arranging to never seriously challenge the power structure, and they have become people who need to be brought down because of their arrogance and their corruption. In short, they became the people they were supposed to stop. They sold out. They allowed themselves to become corrupted. Hey, I hope you've made a great living out of it. Enjoy your retirement. Hope the cash doesn't run out on you.

Don't worry--there are no 'young Broders and Woodwards' out there looking to really bring down Broder and Woodward. There are bloggers out there, but who would ever listen to anything a smelly blogger would say? How uncouth. They say fuck too much. And they're not sending their kids to the right school, you know.

As much as I would like to believe Silverstein's work has made all of this possible, it's more likely that, years from now, both Woodward and Broder will still be churning out their tired insider-laden crap.

How'd we get through all of this without saying something awful about Howard Kurtz? Beats the fuck out of me.

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