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Wash Post Needs an Independent Investigation into Pay-for-Play Dinners

6 years ago
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It's not easy to write when your mouth is hanging open and your eyes are spinning out of their sockets, but I'm going to give it a shot. Mike Allen of Politico has broken one heckuva shocking story, about Washington Post CEO and publisher Katharine Weymouth seeking to sell access to Obama administration officials and to her own reporters and editors, at "salons" in her home. In this economy and at this moment in the news industry, everyone knows that newspaper execs have got to get creative, but not like this.

According to Allen's story, "For $25,000 to $250,000, The Washington Post is offering lobbyists and association executives off-the-record, nonconfrontational access to "those powerful few" -- Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and the paper's own reporters and editors. The astonishing offer is detailed in a flier circulated Wednesday to a health care lobbyist, who provided it to a reporter because the lobbyist said he feels it's a conflict for the paper to charge for access to, as the flier says, its "health care reporting and editorial staff." The offer -- which essentially turns a news organization into a facilitator for private lobbyist-official encounters -- is a new sign of the lengths to which news organizations will go to find revenue at a time when most newspapers are struggling for survival. And it's a turn of the times that a lobbyist is scolding The Washington Post for its ethical practices.''

The paper's editor, Marcus Brauchli, responded by sending a memo to all Post employees saying that the language in the flier advertising the pay-for-play event precluded participation by anyone in the newsroom. (Duh.):

A flyer was distributed this week offering an "underwriting opportunity" for a dinner on health-care reform, in which the news department had been asked to participate.

The language in the flyer and the description of the event preclude our participation.

We will not participate in events where promises are made that in exchange for money The Post will offer access to newsroom personnel or will refrain from confrontational questioning. Our independence from advertisers or sponsors is inviolable.

There is a long tradition of news organizations hosting conferences and events, and we believe The Post, including the newsroom, can do these things in ways that are consistent with our values.


Disclosures: My husband works at the Post, as do half of the people I know. Weymouth is a pal of my boss, and the granddaughter of the late Kay Graham, who did so much to make the paper great that I can't help hoping she doesn't know about this in the hereafter.
Update: In a phone interview, Brauchli said he only learned of the flier and the plan described in it on Wednesday night, when he got a call from Politico seeking comment. "The business side got somewhat carried away in the description of what we would be doing, and put that in the flier.'' Somewhat? An "appalled'' Brauchli went on to say that "the newsroom will not participate in this dinner or any other event structured like this.'' He declined to comment on Weymouth's involvement in putting out the flier or her understanding of the event, and she has not responded to an email seeking comment.
"It's unfortunate that this was printed and distributed,'' Brauchli said. "That somebody thought this was possible reflects an inadequate understanding of what we do.'' Asked how the newsroom had responded to the story, he said, "The newsroom, like me, was astonished this was considered.''
Obama officials offered up for auction seem to have been similarly unaware of the plan, according to White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. At Thursday's White House briefing, Gibbs was asked whether anyone from the White House had been "invited to attend these Washington Post salons that were reported this morning? And what is the White House's official policy on members of the administration doing things like this, regardless of who sponsors them?'' Gibbs responded, "Right. Well, I don't know if anybody here was. I think some people in the administration writ large may have been invited. I do not believe, based on what I've been able to check, that anybody has accepted the invitations. Obviously, the counsel would have to review an invitation like this, and I think it would likely exceed what the counsel would be -- the -- what the -- the -- what -- the salon that The Washington Post is offering would likely exceed what the counsel would feel in this case would be appropriate.''
So, the Post was offering access it didn't even have?
Update II: A memo from Weymouth just went out to Post employees, explaining that the company's marketing minions were to blame. (Do I believe her? I want to; to believe otherwise is to think that she somehow grew up in her family without learning a single thing about journalism ethics -- and thought she wouldn't be caught. But what marketing exec would have the nerve to put out the word that Weymouth was charging up to $250,000 for access to officials at a dinner in her own home without running that plan past her?)
Update III: Weymouth told Howard Kurtz, the media writer for her newspaper, that she would not be holding any off-the-record salons after all. And again, she blamed underlings for hyping the event in ways she hadn't signed off on. "Absolutely, I'm disappointed," Weymouth told Kurtz. "This should never have happened. The fliers got out and weren't vetted. They didn't represent at all what we were attempting to do. We're not going to do any dinners that would impugn the integrity of the newsroom."
Only, dinners in her home that charge lobbyists to break bread with officials and reporters would by definition impugn the paper's integrity.
The Kurtz piece goes on to say that "Two Post executives familiar with the planning, who declined to be identified discussing internal planning, said the fliers appear to be the product of overzealous marketing executives. The fliers were overseen by Charles Pelton, a Post executive hired this year as a conference organizer. He was not immediately available for comment....Weymouth knew of the plans to host small dinners at her home and to charge lobbying and trade organizations for participation. But, one of the executives said, she believed that there would be multiple sponsors, to minimize any appearance of charging for access.''
It breaks my heart to say this -- I mean, this is my husband's boss we're talking about -- but it sounds to me like what Pelton is really in trouble for is truth in advertising; no matter how many sponsors or what the dollar amount, the trade is the same: cash for access.
Make it stop: An update of the Kurtz piece says that the "fliers were approved by a top Post marketing executive, Charles Pelton, who said it was "a big mistake" on his part and that he had done so "without vetting it with the newsroom." He said that Kaiser Permanente had orally agreed to pay $25,000 to sponsor a July 21 health-care dinner at Weymouth's Northwest Washington home, and that Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) had agreed to be a guest. Pelton, who serves as general manager for conferences and events, said he had invited two-dozen business executives, advocates and presidential health adviser Nancy-Ann DeParle, but a White House spokeswoman said no senior administration officials had agreed to attend.''
OK, so Pelton falls on his sword, answering nothing. (Nancy-Ann DeParle is married to Jason DeParle of the New York Times; what was her understanding of this event? I find it hard to believe she knew the deal and agreed.) This is just as serious a breach of trust as Janet Cooke's Pulitzer-winning way-back-when fabrications, people. And an independent investigation is an absolute must, for one thing because the paper's incredibly hard-working reporters and editors -- you know, those people who worry about whether they'll have a job tomorrow, and still give it their all while refusing so much as a cup of coffee from a source? -- yes, those folks deserve to know how in God's name this could have happened.
Katharine Weymouth/exec/TWP

07/02/2009 02:45 PM

Message from the Publisher


You will have seen this morning a story in Politico and now widely picked up that we were planning a series of salon dinners. A flyer went out that was prepared by the Marketing department and was never vetted by me or by the newsroom. Had it been, the flyer would have been immediately killed, because it completely misrepresented what we were trying to do.

I do not normally respond to stories but this one has created enough of a stir that I wanted to take the time to reaffirm our commitment, first and foremost, to our journalism and our integrity. There is nothing more important and no amount of money that would cause us to jeopardize that. We are always looking for new revenue streams but we will pursue only avenues that uphold our high standards of journalism.

We were planning to do a series of dinners and had requested newsroom participation but with parameters such that we did not in any way compromise our integrity. Sponsorship of events, like advertising in the newspaper, must be at arm's length and cannot imply control over the content or access to our journalists. At this juncture, we will not be holding the planned July dinner and we will not hold salon dinners involving the newsroom.

We do believe that there is a viable way to expand our expertise into live conferences and events that simply enhances what we do - cover Washington for Washingtonians and those interested in Washington. And we will begin to do live events in ways that enhance our reputation and in no way call into question our integrity.


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