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The fee is flat: Meet the anti-Friedman

There's an entertaining dust-up in the journalism world today, when globe-trotting New York Times columnist Tom Friedman was forced to disgorge a $75,000 speaking fee for re-reading an online speech to a bunch of Bay Area bureaucrats.

Aside from the sheer jaw-drop that San Francisco's Clean Air District had 75 grand to spare on the Minnesota native, Friedman apparently ran afoul of Times policy limiting such paydays unless speaking to "educational and other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and political activity are not a major focus."

Of course, the University of Minnesota is an educational group (though one with a lobbying focus, at least this legislative session), and just held one of their "Great Conversations" last night. I'd heard the U had recently spit the bit on Friedman's fee, but Margie Ligon, who books the series, says that isn't quite right: the author of the "World is Flat" was never a serious option.

"Seventy-five thousand is his going rate, and we simply don't have that," says Ligon, who directs the College of Continuing Education's Personal Enrichment Programs.

It's hard to get a global star to cut a deal because lecture agents — who take up to 50 percent of the fee, Ligon notes — don't let their clients be lobbied personally. To be fair, Friedman turns out not to be a total greedhead; she recalls he didn't charge the U when they awarded him an honorary degree in 2001.

"Great Conversations" does get price breaks, often when faculty members or U-friendly influentials like Walter Mondale personally lobby acquaintances. That was the case with yesterday's guest, Ken Starr, a pal of U of M provost Thomas Sullivan, whose fee was less than the cost of a night at the Bay Area resort where Friedman was housed.

Still, Ligon  has a special place in her heart for one "Great Conversations" journalist who matches Friedman's intellect, if not his fee.

"We invited Brian Lamb from C-SPAN, and he would not charge us a penny," she recalls. "In fact, he said if it was worth doing, he would pay his own way here. And he did."

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Comments (6)

$75 grand?!?! Wowsers.

A $75,000 is outrageous enough. $75,000 for a vapid blowhard as consistently wrong as Thomas Friedman has been, completely blows my mind. He was one of the guys cheering Dow 36,000 and singing the praises of hyper-globalization, which hasn't panned out so much.

I guess it's worked pretty well for him, though.

I'm constantly shocked with local non-profits ask me what my rate is for MC'ing events. (I don't charge, of course. I should pay people to listen to me.) It makes me wonder - who locally does charge for these sorts of events?

Those high speaking fees are in effect bribes. Aside from the moral objections, I don't have any problem with that, but there isn't any point to giving a bribe unless you want and expect to get something specific in return.

A speaking fee is a bribe? What is he going to do for them? Use his vast power to give everyone a free subscription to the New York Times? Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is charging the same fee — $150,000 — per speech as does former President George W. Bush. I guess it's worked pretty well for them too.

A speaking fee is a bribe?

Excessive ones, to current and former politicians or journalists. Yes, invariably.

What is he going to do for them?

Sometimes nothing which makes it a bad bribe. And the actual quid pro quo is often difficult to spot as is often the case with bribes. With politicians, it's very often given for services in the past, large fees for speeches given favorable positions taken while in office. For journalists, I think it's given for favorable coverage of whatever the group favors.