Why the Bee stings
Can columnist Dan Walters be objective about groups that have paid him to speak
In early September, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters wrote a particularly harsh column about Senate Bill 221, a measure backed by state Senator Sheila Kuehl that would require local governments and developers to find a water source for new housing subdivisions before their approval.
The general thrust of Walters’ column was that Kuehl and the many voices coming out in favor of her bill were misguided in focusing their attention on a symptom of growth—the inability to find a water source for every new development—and not the cause of growth itself, the roughly 600,000 new citizens that come to California every year.
Walters, as a columnist, has a right to his opinion. But instead of giving both sides of the issue a fair hearing and presenting an opposing view in context, Walters absolutely eviscerated the bill, calling it an “illogical” piece of legislation based on the “fallacious” notion that development is growth.
What Walters didn’t say was that he has given speeches for money to various business groups through the years that would stand to gain from the defeat of the bill. Among other groups, Walters has addressed chapters of the Associated General Contractors, the American Public Works Association and various chambers of commerce.
While Walters denies that his journalistic responsibilities conflict with his public-speaking career, the fact he has a side business in which he does get paid by many groups that have business before state government raises ethical questions about Walters’ distance from groups that have a stake in what he advocates.
And it’s not just a couple of speeches. Walters said that he gives 80 to 90 speeches a year for up to $3,500 apiece. Sometimes, he said, he donates the money to various journalism scholarships, but even if he were paid his going rate for half of his appearances, he’d pull in roughly $140,000 on top of his columnist pay. Not bad for a journalist in a medium-sized market.
Of course, Walters isn’t the only journalist to have a lucrative sideline business in public speaking. The issue has been hotly debated for some time.
In 1996, journalist James Fallows wrote a book called Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, in which the issue of whether reporters should also be on the paid public-speaking circuit was raised nationally. Fallows argued that when corporations or political groups with agendas pay reporters to give speeches, the mere appearance of a conflict of interest is enough to cause problems for reporters.
The big speaking draw at the time was ABC’s Cokie Roberts, who Fallows called “a symbol of speech-circuit excess.” Roberts and her husband, Steve, formerly of the New York Times, took speaking fees of up to $30,000 each from groups and companies that their news organizations covered.
Certainly Dan Walters’ speech income isn’t on that level. But while he acknowledged “he does make a little money at it,” Walters said that he tries to avoid conflicts where possible. “There is obviously the potential for conflict, but when I thought one existed, I didn’t do the speech or asked them to donate my fee to some sort of journalism scholarship,” Walters said. “And I do have some ground rules. I won’t do a speech for a fund raiser.”
The fund-raiser rule was the only one Walters offered, but he did add that he’s hired an agent and a marketing firm to handle the speaking requests. It’s an effort, Walters said, to keep the business at arm’s length.
But still, he does do speeches for organizations that have dealings in state government, a topic around which Walters has built a very successful 40-year journalism career, first as a reporter and columnist at the defunct Sacramento Union and then the Sacramento Bee. He says the speeches to advocacy groups don’t place him in a particular bind.
“I don’t think there’s anything inherently conflicting about it,” Walters said, “but it has to be handled with judgment, rules and ethics.”
Those who have heard Walters speak say that he is quite entertaining. He usually gives little factoids that in some way illustrate the general incompetence of those in the state Legislature.
“I’ve seen him speak a few times,” said Randele Kanouse, a lobbyist for the East Bay Municipal Utility District and a key backer of SB 221. The general tenor of Walters’ performance, Kanouse said, “is that the representatives are fiddling while Rome burns.”
His performance aside, the fact that Walters gets paid to give speeches doesn’t inherently mean that in some way he’s been bought off by the organizations that pay him, or even that his view will be affected one way or the other because of a speech.
But more than anything else, the speech-giving could raise perception of a conflict of interest, which is damaging to both the reporter and to his or her news organization, said Aly Colón, on the ethics faculty of the Poynter Institute, a respected journalism education institution in Florida.
“It’s imperative that journalists who speak be very aware that potential conflicts cause a perception that they are beholden to or sympathetic to groups that hire them,” Colón said. “One of the critical elements of journalism is credibility and if one does anything to damage that then you risk becoming an ineffective communicator.”
Colón added that when in doubt, it’s best that a journalist who senses there might be a perception of conflict at least reveal it in print. Then the reader may make the decision of whether to trust the source or not. But Bee executive editor Rick Rodriguez said that readers haven’t complained about Walters’ speaking engagements or potential conflicts of interest.
“There’s never been a conflict and no one has ever raised one, except other journalists who don’t like Dan,” Rodriguez said. “He’s had a contract to do this for some time.”
Still, doesn’t it bother Bee editors that Walters is often out of the office on his way to or from a speaking engagement as far away as Hawaii, where he’ll be speaking this fall? Rodriguez said it doesn’t and in fact it might help his work instead: “It’s a lot of travel, but he also goes around the state and familiarizes himself with state issues.”
Walters agreed: “This sounds corny—sitting down with different people is good because I learn a lot about issues I wouldn’t already know about.”
And that very well may be. There is no evidence that Walters has ever changed his view as a result of being paid by any political organization for a speech. In fact, it’s likely that groups with opposing viewpoints to his have paid him to entertain their constituents. Still, when the most powerful journalist in Sacramento speaks, people listen. Only sometimes, people pay to listen.