Do 'Insider' Journalists Do Us All a Disservice?

I try to choose topics for this column that are not too inside.  "Inside" meaning of interest only to news executives or news reporters or news junkies, as opposed to men and women of broader societal perspective, who I hope are the audience for these pieces.

Today's column starts out inside.  But it will soon go out, I promise, and when it does, will raise an important issue.

Lou Dobbs, the former and present anchor of CNN's business program Moneyline, accepted a reported fee of $30,000 to make a speech last weekend to the Ford Motor Co.'s top dealers.  Should he have done it?

Those who say "yes" cite the First Amendment.  Why should a journalist be forbidden to capitalize on his name and expertise when the same privilege is extended to people in most other American professions?

Those who say "no" cite a conflict of interest.  If Lou Dobbs is beholden to the Ford Motor Co. for $30,000, there is the appearance (one hopes not the reality) of favoritism; i.e., that Dobbs might be tempted to report more optimistically on the company than he should, or perhaps ignore, or deliberately not seek, negative news about the automaker.

What makes this less of a story than other cases of journalists taking big money from big business for small speeches is that Dobbs has said he is giving his fee to charity.  He has also said, as has CNN, that he agreed to the Ford appearance before rejoining CNN, when he was, in other words, not officially a journalist.  To turn down the engagement, thus, would have been to go back on his word.

What makes this more of a story is the following:  On the edition of Moneyline that aired the day before the speech, one of Dobbs' guests was Jacques Nasser, the CEO of Ford Motor Co.  At the end of the interview, Dobbs said, "Well, Jacques, we wish you all the best."  The inside story is now outside.

For more than three years now, I have been reading mail from viewers of Fox News Watch.  For more than six months, I have been reading mail from followers of this column.  The most recurring theme of complaint in all these letters is not that the media tilt to the right or the left, but that they tilt toward existing power: That political reporters are too cozy with legislators, that sports reporters are too cozy with athletes, that business reporters are too cozy with chairmen of the board and that the result of these relationships is skewed journalism, reporting and commentary that takes the side of entrenched interests against those of the average man and woman.

Whether Dobbs himself is too cozy with corporate heads is irrelevant; the point is that his interview with Jacques Nasser gives the impression that he is, and so is one more brick in a wall that decent, thoughtful, hard-working Americans are erecting between themselves and those who report to them.

It is to me a remarkable irony.  Journalists, especially those on television, live and die by their images.  The star anchors pay more for haircuts than the rest of us pay for restaurant meals; they seek the advice of clothing consultants, makeup experts, sometimes voice and diction coaches. 

And then, once their images are perfectly sculpted, once they look like just the kind of folks you can trust to tell you the plain, unsullied truth on any topic of importance, they give air time to the CEO of the company that's about to fork over $30,000 to them for a few minutes of talk time at a convention.

Maybe what they need is a behavior coach.