In early July 2009, an ethical controversy led Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth to cancel plans for a series of "salons" underwritten by lobbyists willing to pay as much as $250,000 for private, off-the-record access to lawmakers and journalists, saying that The Post's business side misrepresented the newspaper's intent in hosting the events.
Reporters Mike Allen and Michael Calderone of the blog Politico broke the story about the proposed events, which were to be held in Weymouth's home, in a July 2 post that detailed the "astonishing offer" and quoted at length a flier The Post circulated to potential sponsors describing an upcoming salon as an "underwriting opportunity."
The one-page flier, which was provided to Politico by a healthcare lobbyist with qualms about possible conflicts of interest, offered sponsors the chance to "bring your organization's CEO or executive director literally to the table," according to Politico. The flier also promised a friendly, off-the-record setting for participants: "Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No. The relaxed setting in the home of Katharine Weymouth assures it. What is guaranteed is a collegial evening, with Obama administration officials, Congress members, business leaders, advocacy leaders and other select minds ...."
Journalists, media watchdogs, and bloggers responded swiftly to news of the planned Post salon. In a July 3 article in The New York Times, Richard Pérez-Peña wrote that The Post was flirting with becoming complicit in the cozy Washington power networks that it famously monitored. In a July 3 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said that the problem with the proposed salons was that news organizations derive their credibility from operating in the public interest - gathering information and making it public. "By holding off-the-record events for money, it's hard to see how that generates any knowledge for the public," Rosenstiel said. "And it potentially undermines its claim that its first loyalty is to the citizen."
In a July 2 blog post, Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote that the controversy "comes pretty close to a public relations disaster," adding that reactions from readers ranged from anger to disappointment to disbelief. Weymouth and Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli responded to criticism by saying that the widely quoted flier was inconsistent with their understanding of the salons' purpose.
In a July 3 column in The Post by media critic Howard Kurtz, Weymouth was quoted as saying that she was disappointed, and that the controversy "never should 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." Kurtz wrote that the man responsible for the fliers' wording was a new hire, top marketing executive Charles Pelton, who called the fliers a "big mistake" on his part.
"You cannot buy access to a Washington Post journalist," Brauchli told Politico in its July 2 post, saying that although he knew that the business side of The Post planned on holding policy dinners and that he was scheduled to attend the July 21 dinner at Weymouth's home, he had not seen the material promoting it until that day. In a July 2 post by Greg Mark on the Web siteof the Columbia Journalism Review, Brauchli said that he had no knowledge of the flier advertising the event until he received a call about it the night before the Politico story ran, adding that it would never have gone out with his knowledge. He later sent a memo to his staff saying that "the language in the flier and the description of the event preclude our participation," according to the July 3 Times article.
In the July 2 post on Politico, Brauchli emphasized that the newsroom had given specific parameters for the proposed salons to The Post'sbusiness side, which were not followed. In order for newsroom staffers to participate in such events, he said, they would have to be able to ask questions and to "reserve the right to allow any information or ideas that emerge from an event to shape or inform our coverage," a direct contradiction of the flier's appeal to potential sponsors, which called the dinner "off-the-record."
Fallout from the scandal reflected both indignation and cynicism. Peter Kafka, of The Wall Street Journal'sAll Things Digital blog, wrote July 2 that "this certainly wouldn't be the first time that the Post has been at the nexus of power, money and influence," pointing out that "publications of all stripes, including this one ... frequently charge fees to attend networking events where their editorial staffs participate." In his July 3 column in The Post, Howard Kurtz was also quick to point out that other media companies "charge substantial fees for sponsored conferences with big-name executives and government officials," but noted that such sessions, unlike The Post'sproposed salons, are usually open for news coverage.
Other media outlets defended their own practices of hosting sponsored media events, distinguishing them from The Post'sproposed salons. In a July 3 blog post by Joshua Green on the Web site of the magazine The Atlantic, Green quoted his editor, James Bennet, as stating that the difference between dinners hosted by his magazine and what the Post fliers described "is that we have full editorial control, and if there's a corporate sponsor (and usually there is) we're very upfront about that with everyone involved. The draw is the participants and the quality of discussion, not a misguided promise that sponsors can influence coverage. What we don't do - and what I'm sure the Post's top people didn't have in mind - is peddle influence over our journalism."
In a letter to readers published July 5 in The Post, Weymouth defended the idea of holding such events, but wrote that the flier promoting the events went too far, and stressed that the off-the-record dinners, in their proposed form, were inappropriate and irresponsible.
"We have canceled the planned dinner," Weymouth wrote. "While I do believe there is a legitimate way to hold such events, to the extent that we hold events in the future, large or small, we will review the guidelines for them with The Post's top editors and make sure those guidelines are strictly followed. Further, any conferences or similar events The Post sponsors will be on the record."
- Ruth DeFoster
Silha Research Assistant