There are many things that are considered normal in Washington that are nevertheless very fucked up. The routine nature of those things doesn’t change how bad they are, but it does change how they’re perceived, and how objections to it are received.
It’s an important dynamic in a city in which professionals in government, politics, lobbying, and the media have to get along with one another for their job; even if you personally are extremely wholesome and don’t have a job setting up astroturfing operations or doing unregistered lobbying, you have to get along with people who do, at work or in your personal life, without saying, “Hey, Mark, good to see you. You know your job is super fucked up, right?”
One of these things that is routine in Washington is for high-profile people to be paid to speak at industry conferences or other events. This received a certain amount of scrutiny when it was Hillary Clinton being paid extraordinary amounts to give speeches to bankers, and for good reason. But it goes on all the time, and with people who aren’t just politicians. One category of these speakers, who command fees of tens of thousands of dollars, is journalists.
Washington Speakers Bureau, one of the biggest speakers bureaus in town, has many journalists on offer for your event, including Manu Raju from CNN, Ezra Klein of Vox, and Jonathan Swan from Axios. Swan’s profile says his audience includes corporations, the finance industry, and “senior management groups.” BuzzFeed reported last year that Swan can command up to $25,000 per engagement.
Last week, the American Hospital Association held its annual membership meeting; it was at this event that a lobbyist reportedly told the audience that he was confident that Nancy Pelosi wouldn’t bring Medicare for All up for a vote. In addition to panels stacked with health policy experts, politicians, and CEOs, several journalists spoke at the conference.
PBS’ Judy Woodruff, a WSB client, hosted their 2019 leadership awards ceremony. Mike Allen, founder of Axios and the creator of the Politico Playbook and its associated lucrative sponsorship model, was on a panel, but we wouldn’t expect anything better from him. The BBC’s Katty Kay hosted a “national political update.” MSNBC host and Presidency Respecter Chuck Todd hosted a “health care leadership breakfast” with a preview of “how the 116th Congress will impact politics and policy.” According to the schedule, tickets to that event had to be purchased separately for $43. You can go to a baseball game for way less, and there’s beer there.
Most notably, however, the Washington Post’s Robert Costa hosted a “network luncheon” for “government relations officers,” which is Washington-speak for “lobbyists.” Just a normal, regular speech by one of the Washington Post’s most visible reporters to a room of lobbyists.
A recording of his remarks provided to us by MapLight, a research organization that tracks money in politics, reveals that the speech was unremarkable. He told attendees not to discount Bernie Sanders, or the possibility of Medicare for All. He told them to pay close attention to Mick Mulvaney and Russ Vought, the acting head of the OMB. He said Trump has no appetite to go after Medicare or Medicaid, which isn’t quite true, since his administration has allowed states to enact horrific work requirements for Medicaid. He made a joke about how the AHA was a better lobby than PhRMA. The Q&A portion saw attendees asking whether he thought a Republican might run against Trump or who he thought the Democratic nominee for president would be.
(Costa declined to comment, so we can’t be totally sure he was paid for the speech, let alone how much. We also emailed questions to the Washington Post and the AHA about speaking fees, and will update when and if we receive a response.)
These aren’t exactly insights that could make the difference for lobbyists seeking to get an edge on their competitors. But it raises a bigger question of whether a reporter can really be expected to be objective about a for-profit industry whose conferences they’ve appeared at as a guest speaker, paid or otherwise. It also raises questions about the venues in which high-profile journalists feel comfortable—surrounded by chuckling lobbyists eating their Caesar salads. Should you aim to be the kind of journalist whom lobbyists adore? Should those be the elbows you’re rubbing?
There’s really no “news” here. This happens all the time. And the fact that there’s no news in high-profile journalists speaking at the annual conference of one of the most powerful lobbying groups in D.C. should tell you something about how this town works.