Illustration for article titled DC Journalists Are Getting Very Rich Off of Trumpem/em
Screenshot: MSNBC

Over the past 18 months, political journalists and news executives have done plenty of dancing around the idea that a “Trump Bump” has provided a financial lifeline for national media outlets. The idea that a Donald Trump presidency is a good thing for the bottom line doesn’t mesh with the notion that he presents a unique threat to the press or other democratic institutions. And while there are plenty of ways to spin a surge in subscribers or profits—quality journalism! More demand for accountability!—that doesn’t make the narrative any less inconvenient.


Press briefing room clashes and personalized insults from Trump himself have also catapulted individual journalists to greater prominence. MSNBC and CNN are hoovering up reporters from print and digital outlets who can break news about the Trump world. Publishers are seeking out the next bestseller chock-full of juicy anecdotes that may be true, may be false, who really cares? And a new BuzzFeed report suggests that they are turning all of these minor indignities into piles of money. While news outlets across the country are being sucked dry by Wall Street vampires, the going in Washington is good.

As any savvy media type will tell you, “diversified revenue streams” are essential in this tough environment. And the TV contributor deal—which gives a particular network exclusive rights to a reporter’s on-air analysis—is a meat-and-potatoes option for Washington reporters expanding their portfolios. As Steven Perlberg notes at BuzzFeed, these deals can start near or above the U.S. median household income of about $59,000 (emphasis mine throughout):

Compensation ranges widely, but it has risen in recent years, according to reporters, agents, and network sources. Starting contributor rates for political reporters fall between about $30,000 to $50,000 a year. Top reporters can earn between $50,000 to $90,000 for their TV side-hustles, and some seasoned pros — boosted by loyalty and multi-year arrangements — make as much as $250,000.


Political reporters say that appearing on television isn’t about money. It’s about getting in front of sources in a political environment where TV news is central to the ongoing conversation. TV hits, reporters say, have become key to their status in the White House, and they have to be careful not to get too far ahead of their own reporting. Journalists have been reminded by White House officials — like former communications director Hope Hicks — that the president is watching what they say about him.


There is probably some truth to the defense that TV carries more weight in the Trump era, though I’ll be convinced when the reporters cashing said checks go on the record to say so. If such appearances really are just about informing the public, they’d do them pro bono.

And there’s more: Book deals—long a staple—can come with six- or seven-figure advances. BuzzFeed also suggests that paid speaking gigs, which are barred by some news outlets’ ethical guidelines, might be fetching higher-than-normal sums. Citing two “people familiar with the matter,” Perlberg reports that Axios’ Jonathan Swan has been paid as much as $25,000 per engagement. (He declined to comment to BuzzFeed; I have also reached out and will update if I hear back.) It’s quite a fee to be smart.

Despite these huge payouts, the journalists involved (who would mostly speak to BuzzFeed only on background) are somehow also attempting to make a play for sympathy. Here’s Perlberg (emphasis mine):

The money is nice, White House reporters say, but they point out that they work constantly and live under the threat of a morning-altering Trump tweet or an evening-altering scoop from a competitor, not to mention frequent attacks on their profession from the president and his allies.

“The money also comes with a lot of misery,” said one White House reporter.

“The money also comes with a lot of misery.”

“The money also comes with a lot of misery.”

“The money also comes with a lot of misery.”

“The money also comes with a lot of misery.”

That sound you hear is the smallest violin in the world not even bothering to tune up.


To be clear, the critique of reporters cashing in on the speaking-circuit or through TV deals is decades old. But now, the press is facing unguarded antagonism from Republicans and a potentially extinction-level economic climate. It’s also not as if a West Virginia teacher or Los Angeles service worker can turn to a cable news “side hustle” for a little extra bread. So if you ever pondered whether elite journalists are sufficiently removed from prevailing power structures to be able to sound the alarm about them, here’s another reason to wonder.

I write about media for Splinter. I have redeeming qualities, too.

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