You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Buckrakers

Washington journalism enters a rich new era.

Any history of Washington journalism would surely mark June 1972 as the beginning of a new chapter. That was when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein started investigating a peculiar burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate. Thus began the era of the Washington muckraker. Woodward and Bernstein became famous, journalism became glamorous, and “investigative units” proliferated at newspapers and television stations across the country.

The same history might mark February 1985 as the start of the next era. ‘That was when Patrick J. Buchanan went to work at the White House and his financial disclosure statement revealed, to widespread astonishment and envy, that he had made $400,000 as a journalist in 1984. This included $60,000 for his syndicated column, $25,000 for his weekly appearance on “The McLaughlin Group,” $94,000 for Cable News Network’s “Crossfire,” $81,000 for a radio show, and more than $135,000 for 37 speeches. Welcome to the era of the buckraker.

Buchanan was by no means at the top of his profession. Television anchors and correspondents have always been lavishly paid. But several “print journalists” now earn more than half a million dollars, and many others are earning sums newspaper and magazine employees wouldn’t have dreamed of 15 years ago. The bad news is that Washington’s new class of buckrakers isn’t making all that money by writing. Today’s Journalistic entrepreneurs are learning to sell themselves-—or, more precisely, their “inside” knowledge and celebrity status.

Goodness knows, there’s nothing wrong with paying journalists well. The most successful buckrakers represent a tiny fraction of their profession, vet they make no more than any number of run-of-the-mill partners in Washington law firms, who are no smarter or harder working. The problem isn’t that buckrakers are overpaid. It’s the effect that buckraking may be having on the craft of journalism.

The rewards of buckraking go to commentators, not reporters. The oldest and most respectable form of buckraking is the syndicated column. Traditionally this was the only wav a journalist could break out of the salaried class. Figures are hard to come by, but David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times has estimated that James J. Kilpatrick, who is syndicated in about 500 papers, and George Will, whose column appears m about 400, earn close to $175,000 each from syndication. David Broder, Joseph Kraft, Carl Rowan, and Evans and Novak (together) probably earn about $100,000 from their columns.

But writing is just the platform tor a buckraking career. The next step is television, ideally as a regular on one of the Washington panel shows. The allure of television is so great that print journalists are generally happy, even thrilled, to appear for free on CNN’s “Crossfire” or the network morning shows. But other television opportunities pay fairly well, by print standards. The three regulars who spar on “The McLaughlin Group” receive $500 per show. Outsiders get $200. On “Agronsky & Company” substitutes earn about $375 and regulars are under contract to drone for substantially more. Journalists take home $500 for appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press/’ and $1,000 for “This Week with David Brinkley.”

Not only that. “The exposure is enormous,” Martin Agronsky says, “If your face is known, people have a feeling about you from ‘IV, and they are more likely to propose that you come and speak to them.” Television can bring fame to print journalists, but it doesn’t often directly bring wealth. The $25,000 a year that “McLaughlin” regulars earn for a few hours of extra work per week hardly seems a paltry sum, but it’s a pittance compared to what the same performers stand to make on the lecture circuit.

Tom Neillsen of the Leigh Bureau, a lecture and literary agency in Princeton, offers his client, Strobe Talbott, Time Washington bureau chief, as a concrete example of the phenomenon. “Strobe has been more in demand since he has been on ‘Agronsky,’ “ Neillsen says. “We’ve seen his fee increase from $3,000 to $5,000. And the number of dates has steadily increased. He’s becoming more recognizable to the buyers.”

Since Talbott is fairly new to television, his fee remains relatively low. George Will charges somewhere between $12,000 and $15,000 and gives, by some estimates, 40 speeches a year. Robert Novak costs about $6,000, and now gives fewer than 30, although he used to give many more. William Safire reportedly gives relatively few, but charges as much as $18,000. Current or former anchorman like Tom Brokaw, Walter Cronkite, and Eric Sevareid demand as much as $25,000. “There’s no excuse for the busiest man in the world not to make an extra hundred thousand or two,” says Dan T. Moore of the International Platform Association, the trade association of the lecture business. “Especially journalists.” (Many who get these high fees, it should be added, also often speak for free or for much less.)

Only a few years ago, lecture agents generally considered talking about their clients’ fees a breach of confidence. When a TNR editor wrote a piece on the lecture business in 1981, she had trouble getting anyone to give prices. Most of the lecture bureaus I spoke with only had to be asked to reveal what their notable clients charge. Like the growth and commercialization of influence-peddling, boasting about lecture fees is another example of the new brazenness in Washington about wanting and making money. The cult of the Washington Insider is a religion in which lecture fees are one of the few ways to measure comparative priestly standing. Most journalists, however, willing as they are to ask others about their sources of income, consider questions about their earnings intrusive, and declined to confirm their reported fees—perhaps out of embarrassment.

Some of this demand for Washington journalists as public speakers still comes from traditional sources: civic organizations, such as churches and women’s auxiliaries, and universities, where student council presidents are as eager as ever to press the flesh with people who might prove useful to them. The growth area in the Washington lecture business, though, is corporations and trade associations. The National Pork Producers Council, the Potato Chip/Snack Food Association, and the American Banking Association all pay journalists exorbitant sums for brief performances.

“They’d like somebody with a Washington Insider perspective,” Washington lecture agent Joe Cosby says. “I recently booked David Brinkley for one of these organizations. ‘What’s he going to talk about?’ they said. ‘What do you want him to talk about?’ I answered. They couldn’t care less. We called his speech ‘Inside Washington Today.’ They loved it.”

The National Association of Chain Drugstores has an annual budget of $200,000 for speakers and a full-time staff that selects them. In recent years the association has listened to William Safire, the entire “McLaughlin Group,” and George Will, twice. Why do they like journalists? “They are celebrities of the political world and the media. They are entertainment and education,” says one of the group’s employees who books speakers. Jack Harmon, who is associate director of conventions for the American Banking Association, says that “speakers in a current events area can add an insight into what’s going on and add some credible comments that fit into the program.”

In a roundabout way, all indicate that what they really is to gaze directly at people they’ve seen on television or at least in those little sketches next to the bylines in their local Op-Ed page. A Washington journalist can provide this little thrill—and a nice break from discussions about pork or interest rates—without abandoning the pretense that this convention is serious work.

“You can’t write the same article over and over again. But you can earn $3,000 by giving the same speech again and again,” says Jack Limpert, editor of the Washingtonian. “A lot of these guys have been very poor most of their lives. It’s very seductive—the easy money seems to be there. But you get ruined as a writer.”

One problem is time and energy. Even giving the same speech again and again can be draining if it involves flying across the country, changing planes at O’Hare, making conversation for several hours with your hosts, and so on. Then there is the mental corruption of rewarming and serving up the same or similar material again and again, which may seep into your writing.

Finally, if you give 40 speeches a year, you spend an inordinate amount of time with business executives and spokesmen for various industries. This can affect your thinking. It’s not a question of quid pro quo corruption. No one is going to sacrifice a scoop or change positions on an important issue just because of a speaking engagement—although the temptation must be very strong to write about tax reform instead of defense fraud if you’ve got a gig next week with General Dynamics.

The real danger is that you begin to absorb the conventional wisdom of the burghers you are being paid to fraternize with. Syndicated columnist Ben Wattenberg, who has spoken to corporations and trade associations, takes a more benign view. “You speak to the big widget trade association and you learn a lot about big widgets,” he says. But business executives who can afford to pay you thousands of dollars to come visit are, to say the least, a highly unscientific sampling of life “outside the Beltway.”

The epicenter of the buckraking storm is “The McLaughlin Group,” a weekly political talk show hosted by former Jesuit priest John McLaughlin, who served in the Nixon White House and is now Washington editor of the National Review. McLaughlin’s program gives the best kind of exposure to journalists, since it not only shows their faces, but presents them as lively characters. The “McLaughlin” regulars even tour, performing ensemble, for fees ranging up to $l5,000 before groups like Footwear Industries of America and the National Association of Manufacturers. At a NAM meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, McLaughlin even used a NAM official as one of his debaters. There is always at least one spot to fill, since according to Joe Cosby, who has booked the group for some of these performances, Novak refuses to join the show on the road because he can earn more speaking by himself.

A source at the National Association of Chain Drugstores, which recently booked “The McLaughlin Group,” says: “They’re the new kids on the block—a hot number.” He adds that they used to book “Agronsky & Company” to perform as a group, but that “the personalities on that team are just ridiculous and they’re too difficult to deal with.” Although the substance of both shows is quite similar, the pace of “McLaughlin” and its air of personal enmity give viewers the sense that they are watching genuine insider banter. It recently surpassed “Agronsky” in the ratings war.

John McLaughlin is a television genius. His show is wonderful entertainment. But with its gimmickry and phony drama, its relentless emphasis on who’s up and who’s down, its pointless predictions and rankings of everything from one to five, “The McLaughlin Group” has contributed materially to the trivialization of Washington journalism. And being on programs like “McLaughlin” has become the measure of success for political journalists. “Appearing in print with good stones and being paid a good salary is no longer enough,” says Walter Shapiro of Newsweek. Everything is seen as being hopelessly tawdry and middle class if it’s not an entry to being on TV.” Although journalists get to speak only 30 words instead of crafting l,000 into an essay, most of the ones I spoke to mentioned that what they say on “McLaughlin” is quoted back to them more often than what they write.

The more popular programs like “McLaughlin” become, the more they supersede careful writing as the preferred way for journalists to inform and persuade. Although George Will says that “everything else takes a backseat to writing,” his basic vocation has suffered from his audience’s paying more attention to his televised output on ABC.

Beyond syndication, television, and speechmaking is a fourth dimension of buckraking, which the Evans and Novak cottage industry has been boldly exploring for a number of years. The team’s first innovation was a newsletter, a vehicle traditionally reserved for specialized fields like gasket manufacture, where inside information can be well worth the several hundred dollars per year such publications usually cost. Evans and Novak publish two of these “confidential” biweeklies: a political report that costs $125 a year and a tax report that costs $200. They have a combined circulation of something under 2,000. Both provide a supposed “behind-the-scenes” look at politics, which generally amounts to the most trivial regurgitation of the headlines in the style of Rolling Stone’s “Random Notes.” A lead item in the “Political Report” says, “The spy scare has more juice in it than the Administration is admitting, but Israel seems unlikely to suffer at all from the Jonathan Jay Pollard disclosures unless it refuses to cooperate on the probe. If that happens, U.S.-Israeli relations will drop to a low point fast.”

It these newsletters contained valuable inside information, why would Evans and Novak deny it to the readers of their column? In truth, the newsletters are rip-offs, which only indicts those corporate executives who waste their shareholders’ money on them. Conferences and seminars that Evans and Novak organize pose more significant questions of journalistic ethics. Subscribers to the newsletters—mostly business executives and political consultants—are invited, at $350 for the day, to participate in “off-the-record” discussions with Washington officials such as Treasury Secretary James Baker, his assistant Richard Darman, Representative Jack Kemp, and Robert McFarlane when he was White House national security adviser. The officials are paid between $500 and $1,000 to participate, which they often donate to charity. Money aside, the government officials are well advised not to turn down a request for their services from such powerful journalists. About 75 people attend these sessions a few times a year. Potentially more lucrative for Evans and Novak are weekend-long versions of these conferences in exotic locales. Last April they hosted Kemp, Bill Bradley, and others at a seminar in Bermuda, where participants paid $2,500 each. They’re planning another conference in Puerto Rico for next spring.

Many journalists say it’s a conflict of interest for Evans and Novak to be paying money to government officials they use as sources. Surely, though, the conflict is exactly the opposite: when an official helps Evans and Novak attract customers to their high-priced seminars, it looks more like a favor they’ve extracted from him than a favor they’re doing him. But what’s most disturbing is the other side of the transaction: Evans and Novak’s selling their positions as reporters. Businessmen and consultants pay for the chance to share for a day the glamorous status of Washington journalists, who can talk to high public officials “off-the-record” (presumably bearing things too valuable for mere readers of their column). Journalists, peddling their insider status, have come a long way from the days when businessmen shunned them as social inferiors.

Can anyone resist the appeal of buckraking? Even editors of The New Republic have been known to succumb. Many people assume that syndicated columnist Joseph Kraft has eschewed the more vulgar aspects of buckraking, since he is rarely seen on television. But Kraft says with charming candor, “Frankly, I’m not very much in demand.” He adds that be has turned down offers to appear on one particular program he declined to name, “where the level of discourse is pretty cretinous.” One journalist who generally does refuse to appear on television or lecture for a fee is Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory. “I’d rather go back to Belfast than make a speech,” she says, adding that she doesn’t get ideas from speaking. “I am affronted when people say to me, ‘What do you really think?’ I write what I really think.”

“It can become a distraction, causing us not to be good at any part of our lives,” Strobe Talbott says, adding that he tries to limit himself to ten or 12 speeches a year. This leaves him more time for activities he considers more important—writing, above all, as well as sitting on the boards of two schools, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Carnegie Endowment.

But the Talbott model of reasonable restraint is not the buckraker’s ideal. That ideal is more like the life-style of a celebrity journalist that William F. Buckley Jr. portrays so vividly in Overdrive—zipping in his limousine from cavorting with the president, to making speeches, to taping “Firing Line.” And he always saves a few minutes to dash off his column.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.