Journalists in Glass Houses

Folklore, otherwise known as common sense, advises that those living in glass houses should not throw stones. A search of the Speaker’s Bureau website for Canada lists the following journalists offering their speaking services for pay – Kevin Newman, Don Martin, Jeffrey Simpson, Chantal Hebert, Andrew Coyne  and George Stromboulopoulos amongst others. Would they be willing to list payments received from organizations, charitable and other, where they were involved over the past five years? How similar is the case of journalists to that of MPs?

It might occur to readers and listeners to wonder who pays journalists for their speaking engagements and who pockets the money, the journalists or their employers. Do journalists have employers who pay their regular salaries? Do they get paid in addition for speaking engagements? Do they share such earnings with their employers? Should they? And do journalists understand why organizations are willing to pay celebrities to be speakers. You might think they would be sensitive to such issues, explain why their case is different, as well as having a basic economic understanding of how events are organized.

Case of academics

Before examining their case, and mindful of glass houses, a word about my own profession as a university academic. Academics are paid a salary by universities for a combination of teaching, research and administration. The knowledge gained, especially in certain disciplines, such as medicine, law, engineering, business and economics (mine) results in invitations to give talks, some of which carry honorariums, as well as to do private consulting. I am not aware that these payments are either paid to or shared with the university, whence they gain much of the expertise to be invited as speakers.

Canadian faculty salaries are funded by a combination of student fees and government revenues. The economic circumstances are such that it would probably be difficult to attract certain faculty unless they had the opportunity to earn an additional stream of consulting/speaking income. This is a peculiarity of their profession, but providing they perform their paid duties to the university’s satisfaction, this stream of income is allowed, sometimes with strings attached.

Each occupation has particular circumstances which determine how persons are remunerated. In universities, I have known faculty who own and operate farms and businesses on the side, thereby earning an additional stream of income. Some may spend time managing their private investment portfolios. There are numerous ways in which people in different occupations spend their time and earn income. Even bureaucrats are known to have run personal businesses during working hours. The internet now makes this easier for them. Before criticising others repetitively and at great length, it is wise to think about one’s own circumstances. This brings us back to the case of journalists.

Case of journalists

While the situation of an employed journalist may differ from a freelancer, those who are employed are paid a salary and benefits by their publisher or broadcasting enterprise, like CBC/Radio Canada, CTV and Global or by a print publisher. Their expertise is developed in part on the job, and their public face and name become familiar largely because of the employer (firm) for which they work. These persons are invited to be speakers for organizations and events for which they are paid. The organizations are typically funded by a combination of consumers, taxpayers, and private enterprise especially through the sale of advertising. Unless journalists share their speaking fees with the organizations they work for, or speak for free (or only for expenses), they are acting in a manner similar to MPs and Senators whom they freely criticise.

An earlier practice of journalists in Ottawa was to write speeches for MPs which were then delivered in the House of Commons, at times for MPs on opposing sides of the same issue. It is not impossible to believe that the journalist might then comment on the speech in a news story. I gather the National Press Organization advises against this practice now. Certainly they don’t talk about it.

Another factor missing from the journalists’ discussion of this issue is the economics of event organization. Charitable and other organizations seek a prominent speaker so that they can then get sponsors for their events. The money collected often fully pays for the speaker, and revenues collected from those attending the event go straight into the pockets of the organization. Without the paid speaker they could not raise as much money. The fact that the organization (charitable or other) did not raise as much as it expected, and asked the speaker to return the speaking fee is a reflection of the organization’s competence, or lack of it, to organize such events. They took a risk and it did not work out. This happens with market transactions. Don’t criticise the speaker for having agreed to be the drawing card.

Such hypocrisy abounds and helps to account for the low trust that the public has for journalists who make a living out of pointing the finger at others, otherwise known as being selective in their choice of stories. As well, the public questions whether the news media can be fair in reporting stories about the institutions which are prominent advertisers in their newspapers and on air. We are fortunate to have social media where these topics are reported and discussed, bypassing traditional media sources. The financial plight of traditional news media is a reflection of this new avenue of competition.

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