I’m still here.
To those readers who emailed their hopes to me that my backside would be fired, I am not sorry to disappoint you.
To the wonderful folks who sent messages of support and, in some cases, bewilderment over why I was in trouble in the first place, I send my warm and humble gratitude.
To those who wonder what the heck I’m talking about, I’ll explain:
I’ve spent a few tense days “under review” by my editors at the Chicago Tribune for delivering a handsomely compensated speech — $20,000 — to a dissident group of Iranian exiles in Paris.
Yes, I am a pundit, which means I make my living by delivering my opinion. But as an employee of the Chicago Tribune — and a member of its editorial board — I am obligated to clear paid speaking engagements with my supervisor, Bruce Dold, editor of the editorial page. I also have ethical responsibilities to the many newspapers that run my column through syndication.
I neglected to get that clearance, and in fact Dold said he would not have approved it. After several decades at the Tribune, including 28 years as a columnist, I fooled myself into thinking I understood my newspaper’s code of ethics so well that I didn’t need any guidance. That’s how a lot of scandals begin.
Yes, the big fee offered by the Organizing Committee for Convention for Democracy in Iran was eye-catching, to say the least. Bigger fees than that are not uncommon for the Washington stars in the event’s lengthy lineup. But they are uncommon for journalists.
There were Republicans like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
There were Democrats like former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean; former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
There were military stars like Gen. George W. Casey and former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway.
And there were diplomatic stars like former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton and Mitchell Reiss, a former State Department policy planning director who advises Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
With upstanding folks like that, what could go wrong? Plenty, for me.
The “conference,” held in a football-stadium-sized convention center, turned out to be more of a full-blown rally for Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MEK, a controversial Iranian group that has been lobbying Washington to be removed from the State Department’s list of designated foreign terrorist organizations. I made a decision: Bye, bye, speaker fee. I sympathize with the cause, but I should not have been a speaker at the event.
By the time Justin Elliott, an inquiring reporter for the nonprofit investigative website ProPublica, called me about the rally after I had returned to Washington, I had decided to return the speaker’s fee and pay for my travel expenses. But that didn’t ease the pain of telling my bosses in Chicago that my name and face were about to go viral on the Internet with the sort of news I never wanted to make. “Tribune columnist Clarence Page under review for unauthorized paid speech,” read our website’s headline with the sort of prominence usually given to heads of state or drug kingpins.
With my job on the line, the review by Tribune Editor Gerould Kern and Dold fortunately concluded that my decades of good behavior — including a 1989 Pulitzer Prize for commentary — indicated that this episode was an aberration. A letter of reprimand would go into my personnel file, but I could keep writing. And I will seek management’s approval of all paid speaking invitations before I accept.
“Why are they picking on you?” asked one of many outraged emails from supportive readers in a similar vein. “Why aren’t reporters going after the other big names who are raking in big money for speeches like this?” The quick answer: They don’t work for newspapers.
As long as we journos, including me, hold others up to high ethical standards, we are obligated to practice what we preach. I make no excuses for my carelessness, dear reader. But I promise to work twice as hard to regain your trust.