Mike Allen’s recent report on the controversial Washington Post lobbyist dinners has sparked a furor. One thing that’s been largely overlooked is the fact that the invitations to administration officials and members of Congress differed markedly from the “sponsorship opportunity” fliers sent to lobbyists. See for yourself: I’ve gotten a hold of an invitation and an accompanying personal email from Post publisher Katharine Weymouth to Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, a key figure in the health care debate.
The takeaway here is that the invitations to members of Congress looked nothing like the fliers to lobbyists that offered “nonconfrontational” access to elected officials and a sponsorship rate sheet that reportedly ranged from $25,000 to $250,000 dollars. The Cooper invitation emphasizes “dinner, dialogue and debate,” with the only clue to the evening’s commercial aspect being the “underwritten by Kaiser Permanente” line at the bottom. The detailed email from Post publisher Katharine Weymouth to Rep. Cooper does not mention a sponsor or any lobbyist presence, emphasizing only the policy nature of the discussion with Post editor Marcus Brauchli and health care reporter Ceci Connolly. So it’s no surprise some elected officials feel blindsided.
The Post’s marketing pitch was unusual, but media “events” are not. Many media organizations, including the Atlantic, host sponsored panel discussions and dinners that bring together “thought leaders”—academics, policymakers, businesspeople, consumer advocates, and, yes, journalists—to debate big policy questions. I’ve been to a couple. They’re interesting. When I asked my editor, James Bennet, about all this, he wrote back from the Aspen Ideas Festival (yes, another of our big events), “The difference between our dinners and what the Post fliers describe 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.”