The American Prospect is a nonprofit, independent magazine covering public policy and politics. Sludge is re-publishing this article.
Fox News host Chris Wallace will be a busy man this spring. Not just because he’ll be covering the twists and turns of the Democratic primary and the Trump administration, but also because he’ll be speaking in front of a bunch of lobbyists.
On April 20, Wallace will lead a “health care leadership breakfast” at the American Hospital Association’s annual meeting. A week later, Wallace will take the stage at the annual convention of the American Council of Engineering Companies. And on May 12, Wallace will give “A View from Washington” at the annual meeting of the Association for Accessible Medicines, a trade group for the generic and biosimilar pharmaceuticals industry.
It’s unclear how much Wallace, who is represented by the Keppler Speakers management company, will rake in for this burst of speaking engagements. But as we approach an election where discussion of health care, drug prices, infrastructure, and climate change will be paramount, a news host appearing before groups who lobby on those issues could look like a conflict of interest. A spokesperson for Fox News did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
You might chalk this up to the loose ethical guidelines at Fox, whose primetime host Sean Hannity appeared onstage at a Trump rally in Missouri in 2018. But it’s more of a norm for members of the “Green Room Caucus”—the gaggle of former politicians, “political strategists,” and media personalities who frequently appear on broadcast and cable news—to speak before lobbying organizations that work on the very issues at the heart of public-policy fights in Washington.
Indeed, when asked about the Wallace appearance, Jeff Urbanchuk, a spokesperson for the American Council of Engineering Companies, told the Prospect that “Chris Wallace’s perspective on Washington, the media, and how reporters cover the news is just as insightful as our past speakers, who include Chris Matthews, Jake Tapper, Donna Brazile, and Robert Costa.” In other words, everybody does it.
A review of several trade group meetings occurring over the next three months finds representatives of NBC News, MSNBC, CNN, CBS, ABC, Showtime, and USA Today among the speakers. The groups include top lobbyists for the health insurance, banking, hospital, petrochemical, and pharmaceutical industries. This has become an alternative source of revenue, one that’s never disclosed when media members subsequently talk about the issues that are the primary concern of the lobbying group that just paid them.
Frequently, the speeches are framed like the Chris Wallace event at the Association for Accessible Medicines, with the speaker providing a “view from Washington” on the issues of the day. “There are hundreds of people coming to our event from outside of the ‘D.C. bubble’ who will benefit from hearing the insights of someone like Mr. Wallace or his peers,” says Allen Goldberg of the Association for Accessible Medicines, who adds that Wallace doesn’t report on the generic or biosimilar medicines industry, so there’s no possible conflict of interest. (Of course, drug prices and health care in general are major political topics that Wallace will undoubtedly cover this year.)
Of course, any political strategist or media personality is probably the least-informed person in a room full of lobbyists on how Washington actually works. Representatives of top industries have far more political intelligence at their disposal than someone who spends most of their time preparing to go on CNN for a 10-minute segment.
So why would trade groups pay media figures for, at best, superfluous and banal information masquerading as political intelligence? One likely answer is that it hooks in the speakers to residual appreciation for the industry line on key issues. “If you give someone $50,000-$100,000 for a half-hour speech,” says Robert McChesney, author and professor of communication at the University of Illinois, “then when you want to talk to them about your issues, there’s a greater likelihood of them taking that call. It’s just smart business. And that’s why it’s ethically dubious.”
If you wonder why the media landscape is so opposed to things like Medicare for All, or so blind to the risks of a warming planet, the buckraking at industry conferences could offer a rationale.
The Trade Group Speaking Circuit
Most annual meetings of large lobbying organizations are paint-by-numbers affairs. There are speeches and breakout sessions about key facets of their business, maybe a performance from a past-their-prime musical act (the Goo Goo Dolls are playing the National Association of Chain Drug Stores annual meeting), and some current or former political bigwigs to round it out.
Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis appears to be highly sought-after this spring, appearing at the chain drug stores lobbyist event and the American Hospital Association meeting. Other political mainstays include former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (American Hospital Association), former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy (the Business Roundtable innovation summit), former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (both appear before the Federation of American Hospitals).
The vast majority of these political figures have speakers bureaus working for them to book these events. Flournoy, Mattis and Bush are with WSB Speakers, while Landrieu and Gates are signed with All American Speakers. All American lists the estimated fees that their speakers earn per appearance: Landrieu gets $20,000-$30,000, while Gates can earn between $100,000 and $200,000.
Green Room Caucus members also have booking agents who get them the top gigs, offering a range of speaking fees openly on their websites. Take the American Bankers Association’s Washington Summit, happening March 23-25 at the Marriott Marquis in D.C. While one keynoter is Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Chair Jelena McWilliams, a natural for a gathering of bankers and their lobbyists, the other two speakers are CNN political analyst and former South Carolina State Representative Bakari Sellers, and CBS News political contributor and former George W. Bush White House aide Leslie Sanchez. Based on their All American Speakers’ bios, Sellers is likely to receive $20,000-$30,000 for the event, while Sanchez will get between $10,000 and $20,000.
The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers’ annual meeting, scheduled for March 22-24 in Austin, Texas, includes “A View from Washington” with Republican pollster and frequent Fox News contributor Frank Luntz, as well as a luncheon with two luminaries: former Chicago Mayor and ABC News contributor Rahm Emanuel, and George W. Bush’s “political brain” and contributor to Fox News and The Wall Street Journal Karl Rove. Luntz typically pulls in $35,000-$55,000 for such an appearance, according to Leading Authorities, his speakers bureau. Emanuel could get $50,000-$100,000, his AAE Speakers bio notes.
The American Hospital Association event in Washington in April has a bounty of Green Room Caucus members attending. In addition to Wallace, Washington Post columnist and MSNBC contributor Eugene Robinson (WSB, “under $25,000”), the co-hosts of Showtime’s The Circus John Heilemann (WSB, “under $25,000”) and Mark McKinnon (Keppler Speakers, $20,000-$30,000), and ex-Congresswoman and CNN contributor Mia Love (Premiere Speakers, no fee range listed) will appear. CBS Sports’ Boomer Esiason will also be on hand.
The policy conference of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the health insurance lobby, will include Bill Sternberg, editor of the USA Today editorial page. Kristen Hawn, a Blue Dog political consultant who has worked with anti-health care reform groups recently, is also speaking at the AHIP conference. Cathryn Donaldson, a spokesperson for AHIP, said the group was prohibited from providing details on the speaking contracts “because they are proprietary.”
Finally, that National Association of Chain Drug Stores annual meeting, the one with Mattis and the Goo Goo Dolls, also features presidential biographer Jon Meacham, former editor-in-chief of Newsweek, contributor to The New York Times Book Review and TIME Magazine, and frequent MSNBC guest. Meachem is with ICM for speaking engagements.
Except where specifically noted, the other trade organizations mentioned in this story have yet to respond to requests for comment.
The Ethics of the News Industry
Some of the top issues being covered in this election year are also the primary concerns of the industries represented at these conferences. Medicare for All has been a chief topic in the Democratic primary, and both the hospital industry and insurance industry have fiercely opposed it. Congress has tangled over prescription drug price reform, and the pharmaceutical industry has beaten back progress. Petrochemical and engineering industry concerns are at the heart of debates over infrastructure and climate. You can’t talk about anything in our economy without finding some connection to the banking industry.
News organizations seek to cover these issues dispassionately, but several of the figures they allow on their airwaves and in their pages are taking money from the industries involved. It calls into question a media bias toward the business-friendly views on these issues. These industry lobbies have little other rationale for having these speakers at their events other than to predispose them to a certain mindset, and use speaking fees to keep the speakers’ toes on the party line.
“The corruption is very intense,” says McChesney, the professor and a persistent media critic. “It’s probably growing worse in the last 20 years, for the reason that there’s so much less money in journalism. There are a handful of superstar reporters and these are the ways to make money.”
We have seen these kinds of ethical minefields before in broadcast and cable news. In 2008, David Barstow wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning report for The New York Times about media military analysts with ties to defense contractors. That contributors or even anchors and staffers have the same kind of conflicts is not terribly surprising.
The usual shouts of media bias toward a particular political party or ideology ring a bit hollow when confronted with this common practice. The bias seems more likely to go in the direction of whoever pays the speaking fee. These fees can be considerable, especially for multiple events. It becomes a major part of the revenue set for Green Room Caucus figures, and that money comes with strings, even if it’s unconscious.
Representatives of NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News Channel, Showtime, and USA Today did not respond to requests for comment.
McChesney relates the situation to the 1910s, a time of newspapers favoring advertisers and bought-off reporters. “This led to a phenomenal cynicism and the creation of professional journalism,” he says. “So people could trust what they read.”