Press Mess Causes Stress

From POLITICO (July 3, 2009):

Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth said today she was canceling plans for an exclusive “salon” at her home where for as much as $250,000, the Post offered lobbyists and association executives off-the-record access to “those powerful few” — Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and even the paper’s own reporters and editors.

The astonishing offer was detailed in a flier circulated Wednesday to a health care lobbyist, who provided it to a reporter because the lobbyist said he felt it was a conflict for the paper to charge for access to, as the flier says, its “health care reporting and editorial staff.”

Original DVD cover
(bottom l to r: Dana Milbank, Howard Kurtz, Michael Shear)

With the Post newsroom in an uproar after POLITICO reported the solicitation, Weymouth said in an email to the staff that “a flier went out that was prepared by the Marketing department and was never vetted by me or by the newsroom. Had it been, the flier would have been immediately killed, because it completely misrepresented what we were trying to do.”

Weymouth said the paper had planned a series of dinners with participation from the newsroom “but with parameters such that we did not in any way compromise our integrity. […]


She made it clear however, that The Post, which lost $19.5 million in the first quarter, sees bringing together Washington figures as a future revenue source.


Executive editor Marcus Brauchli was as adamant as Weymouth in denouncing the plan promoted in the flier. “You cannot buy access to a Washington Post journalist,” Brauchli told POLITICO. Brauchli was named on the flier as one of the salon’s “Hosts and Discussion Leaders.”


“Underwriting Opportunity: An evening with the right people can alter the debate,” says the one-page flier. “Underwrite and participate in this intimate and exclusive Washington Post Salon, an off-the-record dinner and discussion at the home of CEO and Publisher Katharine Weymouth. … Bring your organization’s CEO or executive director literally to the table. Interact with key Obama administration and congressional leaders.”


Brauchli said that Post employees on the business side — not the newsroom — would have been responsible for seeking participants for this event. Reporters, he said, would not solicit sources or administration officials. Brauchli said that he did not know who was invited or who accepted.

Ceci Connolly, a Post reporter who covers health care, told POLITICO that she had been told there would be a dinner and that she would be invited. However, Connolly said, she “knew nothing about sponsorships and had not seen any flier or invitation.”


Charles Pelton, The Post business-side employee listed as the event contact, seemed to dispute Brauchli’s version of events.

Pelton was quoted by Post ombudsman Andy Alexander in an online commentary as saying that newsroom leaders, including Brauchli, had been involved in discussions about the salons and other events.


If POLITICO had not reported on the flier this morning, Brauchli said he expects someone would have seen it before the event and, given the obvious ethical issue, it would have been canceled.


Earlier this morning, Brauchli sent an e-mail entitled “Newsroom Independence” to his staff explaining his position.

“Colleagues,” Brauchli said. “A flier 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 flier 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.”


White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked Thursday in the briefing room if anyone from the White House was invited to attend the salons, and what the policy is for attending such events.

“I don’t know if anybody here was,” Gibbs said. “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, anyone has accepted the invitations.”

From The New York Times (July 2. 2009):

For generations, The Washington Post has been a scrupulous watchdog over the capital’s cozy world of power networking. For a short time, it almost became the network’s host.

The Post decided Thursday to cancel plans to charge lobbyists and trade groups $25,000 or more to sponsor private, off-the-record dinner parties at the home of its publisher, Katharine Weymouth, events that would have brought together lobbyists, business leaders, Post journalists and officials from the Obama administration and Congress.

The revelation of the parties early Thursday morning by appalled members of The Post newsroom and put the paper squarely in the cross hairs of journalism ethicists. In response, Ms. Weymouth canceled the first dinner, scheduled for July 21.


With the print business in tough straits, many news organizations have turned to conferences and other events to raise revenue and their profiles. But the planned Post events seem particularly audacious, not only acting essentially as a paid conduit between lobbyists and government officials, but also providing sponsors the opportunity to make their case to Post journalists.


News of the planned events dominated discussion across the nation’s capital Thursday, and inspired wisecracks.

At that White House briefing, when a Post reporter, Michael Shear, asked about the president’s health care plan, Mr. Gibbs joked: “The counsel’s office has advised me to ask Mike exactly how much each of these questions is costing. I seem to have forgotten my AmEx card.”

In the Post’s newsroom, editors and reporters reacted with dismay. Marc Fisher, the enterprise editor for local news, said people in the newsroom knew the company was considering conferences, “but I don’t think that anybody envisioned that we would attempt to sell access in a very limited way, with the implication that there would be inside information only to those who ponied up big money.”

Most often, events held by journalism organizations are on the record and the public can attend by buying a ticket.


What has made The Post’s proposed events different is the setting — in the privacy of the publisher’s home — and that they were aimed at connecting lobbyists, trade associations and other influential capital players.

From emptywheel (July 3, 2009):

Howie Kurtz worked all day yesterday trying to come up with a narrative that would make the WaPo’s Pay2Play scheme look less damning. His latest effort is notable for several reasons:

* He killed the anonymous quotations from Weymouth and Brauchli
* With those anonymous quotes, he also killed any description of what the Pay2Play dinners were supposed to be
* He let Weymouth spend 356 words claiming “everyone does it”
* He gave a list of the planned attendees


Killing the anonymous quotations from Weymouth and Brauchli

Perhaps Howie killed the anonymous quotes because, in an article trying to defend the WaPo’s “journalistic integrity” and “integrity of the newsroom” it just looked bad to grant the WaPo’s Publisher and Executive Editor anonymity to blame another employee and make vague claims about what the real intent here was.


Killing the description of what the dinners were supposed to be


Mostly, though, he’s left with Weymouth’s now on-the-record excuses for why Pay2Play isn’t such a bad thing.

But precisely what would be acceptable remains unclear. Asked whether the forums she envisions might still be viewed as buying access to Post journalists, Weymouth said, “I suppose you could spin it that way, but that is not the way it would have been done.” She said the situation would be comparable to a company buying an ad in the newspaper while knowing that it “might hate the content” on that page.

What? Weymouth was going to serve “content”–rubber chicken or something–that attendees would hate? She was going to interrupt Kaiser’s attendees just as they started attacking a public option? Make sure they weren’t allowed to speak to the White House healthcare czar? How do you control the content of a dinner party?


Arguing “everybody does it”

Rather than a real recognition of the problem here, the WaPo’s publisher basically argues–and Howie spends 356 words arguing for her–that “everybody does it.”


Apparently, the woman now running the WaPo sees no difference between an event in her living room targeted to the biggest policy fight of the year, and more general exchanges of ideas. Apparently, she also thinks that if ideologically driven papers like the WSJ hold such events, so can she–even while invoking journalistic integrity with her next breath.


Listing the planned attendees

The key players, Howie reveals, were supposed to be White House health care reform czar Nancy-Ann DeParle, Blue Dog Jim Cooper, and Kaiser Permanente, all big players in the upcoming healthcare fight.

For her part, DeParle is denying she had received the invitation (though, particularly given her fondness for the revolving door, this could be an attempt to parse a distinction between receiving an invite and agreeing to attend).


Blue Dog headache Jim Cooper says–through an aide–that he would not attend a “radioactive” event like this.


And while both those Democratic fans of influence peddling appear to deny they were attending a Pay2Play dinner, Kaiser Permanente makes a more narrow distinction between “buying influence” and “a seat at the table.”

Sybil Wartenberg, a spokeswoman for California-based Kaiser Permanente, said the company had not made a final decision to finance the dinner — no contract had been signed — and was not attempting to buy influence. “Our organization is not as well-known on the East Coast,” she said. “We’re keenly interested in reform and want to be at the table for discussions.”

I assume, however, that Kaiser was well aware of just how exclusive Katharine Weymouth’s table was set to be.


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16 responses to “Press Mess Causes Stress

  1. And this is the paper of Woodward and Bernstein? Shame!

  2. “but with parameters such that we did not in any way compromise our integrity”

    Freedom of the Press turns into Cash for Access

    The “everybody does it” defense ices this cake.

    • you can’t compromise your integrity if you have none in the first place!

      the only ones i feel sorry for in this scenario (except for the reading public) are the honest and decent reporters in the newsroom. they’ll all be tarnished by the acts of their editor. oh well, maybe it’ll make them work a little harder.

      • That red bottom line on the paper’s balance sheet is breeding desperation, not innovation. The latter might save the paper; the former just speeds its doom.

        • exactly, neon vincent. i bet there are plenty of people working there who have some good ideas about how to save the paper. however, they don’t have graham genes, so they shouldn’t be listened to.

  3. I have an idea … instead of building this crap, why not spend that money on good, serious, solid investigative reporting? The kind that used to be the hallmark of newspapers and has now been forgotten in this print-the-press-releases culture that has replaced journalism … Back when newspapers scooped each other by having people who were at least half detective.

    Or else, if that isn’t the point anymore, they should just shut down and quit pretending.

    • silly, silly wickle! it’s not about the journalism or the truth anymore. it’s all about sensationalism. instead of raising the bar, the newspapers and news channels aspire to be the national enquirer or entertainment tonight. just as politicians no longer get into politics for love of country, those who go into the news biz nowadays have no interest in exposing the truth or educating the public. instead, it’s about skewing information in order to promote corporate interests.

      • I half expect to hear a reporter one day:

        “An anonymous source claims today that the President made the sky turn purple. A White House spokesman denied the accusation, but Senator Weaselface has released a statement …”

        … and no one bothers to look up and see that the sky is not, in fact, purple.

        • they already do that, wickle, but in an even more lazy fashion. for example, faux news makes ridiculous accusations on their banners at the bottom of the screen, but they put question marks at the end. that’s supposed to make them fair and balanced. a lot of the news anchors on all the stations preface their nonsensical assertions with ‘some say…’ or ‘it’s been heard that…’. they never say who has said what it is they’re talking about. it’s usually uninformed morons or ultra-partisans or just conspiracy theorists. this is what passes as news and/or political debate. it’s a lot easier than actually doing any research.

          • I haven’t watched TV news in years. I rely pretty heavily on NPR, which tends not to get caught up in this malarkey.

            “It’s been heard that …” Pttthh!

            Why don’t they just start reading forwarded e-mails from their crazy Aunt Sally, then?

            • hey! we can play this game, too, wickle! 🙂

              some say that campbell brown has been reading her crazy aunt sally’s emails as though they were real news!

              pass it on!