WaPo Salons Sell Access to Lobbyists

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[Gautham Nagesh]

I'm rarely shocked by the news these days, but this story in Politico today did the trick:

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.

Unsurprisingly the WaPo had no comment, though sources told Politico that the marketing flier "may be getting ahead of what the newsroom is prepared to deliver". According to this email sent to the newsroom staff today, that seems accurate:

Colleagues,

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.

I genuinely believe that the newsroom staff could not have known that the marketing department was out promising lobbyists access to them in exchange for cash. I also have no idea why any White House officials would allow themselves to be used for such a purpose. If there aren't already laws forbidding high-ranking officials from taking part in something like this, there should be.

The attempt to pass this off as a conference is disingenuous. It is true that news organizations have had to turn to hosting events and creating other revenue streams as advertising dollars have dried up. But those events are generally open to the public, on the record and relatively transparent. Most events charge an entrance fee, but there is vast difference between charging someone $150 to attend a public event as opposed to $25,000 for a private, off-the-record chat over cocktails in Katherine Weymouth's sitting room. The very fact the event is off the record is telling. What kind of news organization would stage an off-the-record event and require its editorial staff to attend? The concept is completely at odds with our mission as journalists.

I'm sure in the coming days we will find out that this was the brainchild of Weymouth or one of the other suits that have little if anything to do with the daily news operation. But that's what makes it so reckless and irresponsible. With one poorly-worded flier they have left their editorial staff vulnerable to questioning as to whether sponsors will have an influence on their reporting, questions that no reporter who is simply doing their job should ever have to face. I have a great deal of sympathy for the Post's editorial department and I applaud their response. But someone upstairs should have to answer for this, preferably before the first Washington Post Salon on July 21st.

Update: That was quick. The Post has canceled plans for the Salons:

"Absolutely, I'm disappointed," Weymouth, the chief executive of Washington Post Media, said in an interview. "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."

Moments earlier, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said in a separate interview that he was "appalled" by the plan, and he insisted before the cancellation that the newsroom would not participate.

"It suggests that access to Washington Post journalists was available for purchase," Brauchli said. The proposal "promises we would suspend our usual skeptical questioning because it appears to offer, in exchange for sponsorships, the good name of The Washington Post."

Brauchli was the author of the email I posted above. This is good new but my sense is the damage from this incident will be more directed towards the business side of the Post rather than editorial. It just reeks of desperation, which is not exactly the best message for a newspaper to be sending at a time like this.

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