USA Today‘s Washington bureau chief is facing calls to be removed as a moderator in the upcoming vice-presidential debate following revelations that she hosted a party for a woman who used to work for Vice President Mike Pence. Given that it’s common practice for editors and reporters to pay for social get-togethers with political figures, I don’t see any sign of compromised journalism standards.
The controversy started after a house committee last week published the findings of an investigation into Seema Verma, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services who allegedly spent more than $3.5 million of taxpayer dollars on “GOP-connected” PR consultants, Politico reported. Before taking that job, Verma had advised Pence on health policy when he was still governor of Indiana.
Verma’s spending at the CMS included a $2,933 bill from a consultant to organize a “Girl’s Night” in her honor at the house of Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief for USA Today, in 2018. It all sounds very clubby and possibly compromising — except that Page paid more than $4,000 out of her own pocket cover catering and other costs of the reception.
Page wasn’t reimbursed for those expenses and was unaware that CMS had been billed by the consultant who organized the event, which was held to “honor women on both sides of the aisle doing notable things,” a USA Today spokesperson told Politico.
In other words, Page did what many reporters do when they’re networking with possible sources — pay the costs of entertaining them instead of accepting their favors or gifts. Journalists routinely pick up these tabs to maintain their editorial independence and make it clear that sources can’t curry favor by covering the costs of dinner and drinks.
While Verma’s spending may be considered excessive in bilking taxpayers for the cost of raising her public profile, that doesn’t have anything to do with Page’s personal spending. Page should be allowed to maintain her spot as a moderator in a debate between Democratic nominee and Kamala Harris and Vice President Pence, Verma’s former “boss.”