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Thomas L. Friedman and the high cost of speaking

ON THE MEDIA

The New York Times columnist returns a $75,000 speaking fee.

May 13, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

Most reporters would love to make $75,000. In a year.

So it set my eyes to blinking when I read that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman got paid that much for a single speech, sponsored last week by the San Francisco Bay Area's clean air district.

I called the Times several times in the last couple of days to ask Friedman a bunch of questions, like how it felt to be such a giant cheese, whether he would disclose who else paid him big bucks and whether he felt queasy taking so much money from a public agency that presumably could spend the money on other things.

Friedman didn't return my calls, and New York Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis seemed pretty cool to my questions. I got the feeling, from her long silences, that she thought my questions were a little silly.

Then late Tuesday afternoon, Mathis called to say Friedman would return the $75,000. She said there had been "a misunderstanding."

Times ethics guidelines allow staffers to take speaking fees only from "educational and other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and political activity are not a major focus." The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which coughed up Friedman's standard fee, hardly fits that bill.

So here's a tip of the reportorial green eye shade to Phil Matier and Andy Ross, the San Francisco Chronicle columnists who broke the story about the big payment. And here's a suggestion that the time has come for influential journalists like Friedman to disclose their substantial sources of outside income.

I don't have any reason to doubt Friedman's reputation as an earnest and dogged reporter. I read him enough to believe that his opinions, even ones I disagree with, flow from his heart and mind, not his wallet.

Still, it seems only right that journalists -- who spend a lot of time pressing public officials to disclose their income sources -- start revealing potential conflicts of interest. Some form of transparency will become even more important as a thousand new and unproven news sources bloom online.

Without the Chronicle's dynamic reporting duo, the Bay Area air district would not be getting back its $75,000, money that could help cities expand bike paths or plant more trees.

That's proof enough for me that we can start the disclosure on these speaking engagements right here and now.

When I talk at a high school or college, the hosts tend to provide a bottle of water. (I like it chilled, but sometimes I have to accept room temperature.) On rare occasions, I'll get comped a meal or a short road trip. Monday night, I spoke to Jim Burns' journalism students at Cal Poly Pomona. When it was over, the instructor handed me an envelope, containing a $25 Trader Joe's gift card.

Not that I expect to be paid like Friedman, who has a few things I don't, like three Pulitzer Prizes and a string of bestselling books, including "Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution -- and How It Can Renew America."

I don't know, or really care, how Friedman spends his money. But it would be interesting and maybe revealing to see who else is willing to pay $75,000, which spokeswoman Mathis assured me is the "market rate."

The newspaper's ethics handbook requires journalists to file "an accounting" each January if they have earned more than $5,000 in speaking fees. Friedman passes that threshold just clearing his throat.

But Mathis told me the New York Times does not release the reports on speaking engagements it receives from its employees.

Before Friedman agreed to give back the money, the spokeswoman had been trying to help me understand why a $75,000 fee made good sense.

She noted that the columnist "flew across the country at their request" to make the appearance.

He conducted "a lengthy Q and A," she added, "so they were getting not only the presentation but a chance to talk with him and ask him questions."

Mathis noted that Friedman frequently waives his fee, as he planned to do in speaking this week to the Sierra Club.

And he makes his speeches and PowerPoint presentations available free of charge on his thomaslfriedman.com website.

She said, finally, that Friedman gives generously to charity.

All good. But I'm still curious how Friedman decides who pays and who doesn't and how he would feel about matching my public disclosure.

Friedman's appearance in Oakland last week before about 500 bureaucrats had been in the works for more than a year.

His lecture agent arranged the appearance, Mathis told me. "He had been under the impression that it was a community group or nonprofit," she said. "When he found out it was not, he instructed his agent to return the fee and they have notified the organization."

It's hard to imagine that a practiced speaker like Friedman didn't know what sort of crowd he'd be addressing, especially since the whole point of the daylong "climate summit" was to inspire local government officials to promote sustainable development.

I'm guessing a more likely explanation is that Friedman and his agent hadn't focused on his paper's speaking guidelines recently and that the Oakland group didn't seem that much different to him from dozens of others he's addressed.

Public disclosure of large outside payments, say of $1,000 or more, would allow us to keep better tabs on what's driving the press.

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james.rainey@latimes.com

On the Media also appears Fridays on Page A2.

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