When Talent Gets Paid From Outside Sources, What Is a Network To Do?

By Alex Weprin 

Television news personalities are also celebrities, and as such are in high demand for appearances. Many times these appearances are free, but on occasion they may be reimbursed for expenses, or paid outright for appearing.

That issue, the issue of speaking fees, is covered in this month’s Columbia Journalism Review (h/t Inside Cable News).

Coincidentally, it has already been quite a month for controversial payments. Earlier this month news came out about MSNBC host Ed Schultz receiving $200,000 in speaking fees from unions. MSNBC responded by saying that the speeches received prior approval and that the money had to be donated to charity, although Newsbusters remains uncertain that all of the money was donated.

CJR cites the case of Fareed Zakaria, who pulls double-duty as a columnist for TIME, and as a host on CNN:

Fareed Zakaria, host of the weekly CNN show Fareed Zakaria GPS, has a rate of $75,000, as reported in Harper’s. His general topic on the show is geopolitics, but he has covered Occupy Wall Street and the European financial crisis and interviewed Mohamed A. El-Erian, the CEO of the investment firm Pimco. Over the years, he has been retained for speeches by numerous financial firms, including Baker Capital, Catterton Partners, Driehaus Capital Management, ING, Merrill Lynch, Oak Investment Partners, Charles Schwab, and T. Rowe Price, according to the website of the Royce Carlton speakers bureau.

Zakaria didn’t respond to a request for comment, either, but a CNN spokeswoman said: “We have full confidence in Fareed Zakaria’s professionalism and judgment and do not think his outside speaking appearances interfere with his CNN responsibilities on his weekly show or his commentary on CNN.”

CJR also cites CNBC’s “admirably tight” ethics standards.

For networks, the issue of speaking fees is immensely complicated. Hosts like Ed Schultz make no claims to be neutral, but he also covers issues related to unions, and payments could be seen as a quid pro quo. On the other Zakaria does make journalistic claims of neutrality, and speaking fees from organizations or people he might cover are a serious breach of journalistic ethics. Unfortunately, the more high-profile the figure, the more challenging the rules become to enforce.