The Ethical Lapses of Two Journalism Heroes

Ken Silverstein, who writes the Washington Babylon blog at Harper’s magazine, has run a blistering series of columns exposing how Bob Woodward and David Broder of the Washington Post “buckracked” huge fees for speaking before groups:

So to summarize: Broder and Woodward have both given speeches to big corporate trade groups–some with major lobbying interests–often as part of events held at spas and resorts. Broder even headlined a political fundraiser for a group of realtors. Woodward appears to give the bulk of his speaking fees to his personal foundation, but that “charity” gives away a tiny fraction of its assets–skirting IRS regulations–and much of the money goes to one of the most elite private schools in Washington, which Woodward’s own kids attended. Neither Woodward nor Broder replied to requests for comment, an odd strategy for journalists.

You want to read a courageous journalist? Read Ken Silverstein. (Full disclosure: Ken is a friend.) He is taking on one the heroes of our profession — Bob Woodward — and holding him up to the lens for close inspection. And that is of course what Woodward has done throughout his career. But what Ken points out is that career has turned Woodward, the ultimate outside, into an insider.

You’re corrupted if you take money from corporate groups, but not if you give the money to charity? Even if it’s your own personal charity, and you get a tax break, and most of the contributions go to elite causes of direct interest to the donor? This looks to be the same sort of double-dealing and hypocrisy that Bob Woodward–at least the old Bob Woodward–would have been all over as a reporter, if a political figure were involved.

Media criticism is an area where many journalists fear to tread. I do it myself on a smaller scale in San Diego, where I write a column of media criticism for the Voice of San Diego, but I do so with some trepidation. I’m never really sure what the consequences will be to my career. But I’m just playing in the sand while Ken swims in the ocean.

Best of all was [Washington Post Congressional reporter] reporter Jonathan Weisman, who during an online chat was asked: “Harper’s is reporting that your colleagues David Broder and Bob Woodward earn five figure honoraria for speaking before business groups. When are you gonna start getting some of that action?”

“I’ve been thinking the same thing!” replied Weisman. “I gotta get me an agent!”

Yeah, and while you’re at it, you get a moral core and a sense of professional ethics, too.

That’s just blistering criticism. And it’s long overdue.

Buckracking is widely (and justifiably) condemned by some of many journalists, including the “high priest” himself, David Broder. But it’s difficult to cover a profession when you have the same paymasters:

Perform a Google search and you’ll find that Jeff Birnbaum, the Post’s lobbying reporter, has spoken to a number of groups, including ones that lobby.

How have things gotten so bad? Easy: Nobody has done what Ken is doing.

It’s not easy to take on your own profession, but if journalism isn’t covered with the same intensity and focus that journalists cover everyone else, there won’t be much of a profession worth having.