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Should Journalists Disclose Fees?

ONCE upon a time, issues of journalism ethics were confined largely to such questions as whether a reporter should ``clean up'' a quotation or conceal a source. Occasionally a travel writer might take heat for going on a free junket; but for most ``ink-stained wretches'' toiling in the newsroom, the only conflict of interest was between their editors and their families. That was before top journalists became - in large part thanks to television - celebrities. Today, big-name, high-visibility journalists are in demand as speakers, panel moderators, and TV guests. Many media stars command between $5,000 and $20,000 for sharing anecdotes and insights with enthralled audiences.

That raises questions: Who's paying these fees? Do the fees affect journalists' work? Does the public have a right to know?

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The questions have assumed new prominence as the ethics spotlight beams on public officials - especially on the honorariums paid members of Congress for speeches to groups interested in legislation. If such fees pose conflicts of interest, what about fees to journalists, in particular those paid by groups or sources in the areas covered by a speaker?

Journalists' stock reply is that they don't vote on laws or pass out the public's money; hence there's no need for disclosure of outside income. Furthermore, they add, they resent any implication that they could be corrupted, and besides, the First Amendment bars any requirement that could chill freedom of speech.

The last two rebuttals are makeweight, and apply equally to lawmakers. The real issue is, do journalists, even though they are not officials, have a public trust that mandates any special accountability?

The answer is yes. Journalism long ago was dubbed the ``fourth estate'' in recognition of its influence on public affairs. And that was before mass communications magnified journalists' power to spread information, shape opinion, and order the public agenda.

The First Amendment itself is premised on the importance of a free press. Journalists can't have it both ways. They can't demurely disclaim their influence to thwart accountability, while insisting on the special First Amendment protections granted in acknowledgment of their power.

This isn't to say that journalists need throw open the windows on all their activities and sources of income. The issues are complex. But the press will ignore them at its peril. Ultimately, the media's independence may be at stake.