Paul Starobin has a useful article at Columbia Journalism Review on the way some high profile journalists receive large speaking fees for appearing before financial services industry audiences, most often conferences for investors, when they write about the same industry. Starobin handwrings on whether taking fees biases coverage. He points out that some organizations, such as Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and CNBC prohibit any fees or even expense reimbursement (Bloomberg does make an exception for its opinion column writers).
While some writers, such as Martin Wolf, Michael Lewis, and Gretchen Morgenson, were willing to discuss what they considered kosher with Starobin, most were unwilling to comment for the record:
…most of the journalists I tried to talk to about their speaking appearances resisted comment, or would only talk anonymously—which is a little ironic. One prominent scribe pleaded not to be mentioned at all. (Sorry, no passes.) I still have the bite marks on my neck from a telephone conversation with another who demanded to know whether he was the target of a “hostile inquiry.”
So not surprisingly, the comments come from writers whose acceptance of paid gigs would seem to be less problematic, although Starobin fails to differentiate as to how the different beats of those who were willing to discuss their policies make that so. Morgenson, who dines on the industry, gets paid only when she speaks to universities and screens any financial firms that want a free gig carefully. By contrast, Martin Wolf is a columnist, not a journalist per se, and writes on the economy rather than on companies or personalities, and thus the conflict issue is not really operative. And as much as Tett’s writing now stays comfortably within the confines of orthodox thinking (Starobin stepped in it when he depicted her book Fools Gold as tough on the financial services industry), I’d hazard that it has more to do with her promotion to being in charge of the US editorial operations rather than her speaking gigs.
But the critical point is made in passing:
Unconscious self-censorship could be a factor, too, as journalists who enjoy Wall Street’s money might come to feel more simpatico toward their benefactors’ perspectives on various issues. It’s a pretty typical human reaction, after all. The New York Times reported recently that doctors who take money from drug makers often are more willing than doctors who don’t to prescribe drugs in “risky” ways. Why should journalists be any more immune to this than physicians are?
It goes much further than that. We are much easier to manipulate than we want to believe. Social psychologist Robert Cialdini, in his classic book: Influence: The Art of Persuasion, reported that people who received a gift as minor as a can of soda were more receptive to a sales pitch. There’s a reason drug companies would give doctors pens, note pads, and desk toys.
And journalists have a much more basic problem. Most financial reporters spend a lot of time with senior people in the industry. Big firms already can sway coverage by playing the access journalism game and by artful packaging that seeks to frame the debate (or if you are Jamie Dimon, you just go on loudly and confidently about things that aren’t true). And a few notable exceptions, like Larry Summers, people in positions of influence are usually pretty smart and persuasive. I wrote after my visits to the Treasury that it took a day of two to detox. Journalists are in this every day. It’s not hard to see that even ones who are well intentioned are likely to have the relentless barrage of propaganda influence their thinking (although there are quite a few writers that readers can easily name whose pretenses of objectivity is pretty thin).
So while it is possible to tread a careful line, the number of journalists who refused to talk to Starobin on the record suggests a lot of them have good reason for not wanting their practices aired. And while the excuse is that the reticence is due to concern over reader overreaction, if it doesn’t look right, odds are that it isn’t right.