Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I Can Be Had for Chump Change

Apparently, attaining the heights of being an op-ed columnist for the New York Times is just a splendid achievement if you can wrangle it. First of all, you get to engage in what must be admitted is a truly ego-self-stroking activity (something vaguely salacious about that, but maybe it fits this particular line of thought), that is: putting your opinion on whatever happens to strike your fancy out there for millions of people to read twice a week. And as a NYT columnist, you're in the upper echelon of such beings, and therefore you inhabit a plane of existence the rest of us groundlings can only dream of.

Case in point: some people, among them famous columnists, can demand big fees for people to listen to whatever it is they have to say. Now, this is a concept that is totally, utterly alien to people not fortunate enough to belong to the famous-enough-to-charge-money-for-a-speech class. And that would be most of us. But the collection of more or less famous people you can get to speak for a price is huge. Check this site out. Hundreds of speakers are here for hire. And--are you sitting down?--you can pay more than $200,000 to some of these people for giving a talk. Don't know about you, but this astonishes me. Not that I wasn't aware that this went on--I heard that if you wanted Bill Clinton to grace your rubber chicken dinner and give a talk, it will cost you a cool half a million bucks. It's just that I've reminded myself about it. Can you imagine getting that kind of money for talking for an hour or maybe less? Hell, I can give a pretty good speech, and I'll do it for a few hundred bucks if you pay for dinner, the bed, and the plane. I'll even carry my own bags.

But this isn't what I wanted to notice today. What I did want to comment on was this story about New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. Seems he had to give back the $75,000 he got for recently giving a speech to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in San Francisco. Unfortunately for Friedman, a sharp-eyed reporter named James Rainey tripped over the story and the fact that NYT policy allowed its columnists to take speaking fees only from "educational and other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and political activity are not a major focus.” He called Friedman with some questions and got no response. Long story short: a Times spokesperson did call and the initial response Rainey got from the apologist at the other end of the line was mealy-mouthed bullshit about Friedman's long cross-country flight, his generous Q & A session after the speech--the lucky air quality people got this gratis--and his prodigious charity giving. Next day, though, Friedman returned the fee. All a misunderstanding. Whoops.

Now you tell me we don't have a captured, corporate press. These people live on another planet.
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