Washington Post Draws Fire With "Salon" Series

UPDATE: Post CEO and Publisher Katharine Weymouth has canceled the series of dinners, saying, "Absolutely, I'm disappointed...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."

The Washington Post found itself the object of much criticism this morning after Politico's Mike Allen reported on a Post "salon" series, promising private, off-the-record, non-confrontational dinner discussions with Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and Washington Post reporters and editors, for $25,000 per person, marketed to lobbyists. "Bring your organization's CEO or executive director literally to the table," reads a flier. The dinners are to be hosted at the home of Post CEO and Publisher Katharine Weymouth; the topic of the first one, advertised int the flier, is health care.

Evidently a lobbyist felt uncomfortable with the ethics of it--a newspaper appearing to peddle influence in a $25,000-per-ticket lobbying session, serving as interlocutor between lobbyists and the White House, assuring the cooperation of its editorial staff, and perhaps the chance to influence reporters--and gave a copy of the flier to Allen. Lots of bloggers shared the sentiment. The Post's Ezra Klein, one of the paper's most notable health care experts, called it "appalling" and said he would have refused to attend, had he been invited or informed.

The newsroom was evidently unaware of its promised part in the salons, and Post editor Marcus Brauchli sent out a newsroom-wide e-mail at 10:33 saying the newsroom wouldn't participate in the first salon, that there's a way for news organizations to host conferences (a standard practice), and that, as the the "salon" plan is described by the flier, this isn't it. Conor Clarke called it the "fastest damage control ever."

The business of media-organized conferences, roundtables, seminars, and presentations works, in most cases, similarly to the everyday sale of newspapers and magazines. The editorial staff has something to offer in the way of content--information, expertise, relationships with prominent sources who will talk about health care in front of an audience (booking power), good questions for the experts and an ability to moderate the discussion--and the business side sells that content to advertisers or attendees. (UPDATE: The Atlantic has an events business of its own, Atlantic Live.)

But the Post managed to outrage a broad swath of people with this flier. Just look at the bloggers who denounced it: the criticism didn't come from left, right, or center, but from all three--because the concern was about basic ethics, and nobody likes sleaze. Beyond that, the story played into two political narratives about lobbyists and the media. Conservatives don't like the mainstream media establishment because they think it has too cozy a relationship with the Obama administration; subsequently, conservatives impugned the Post as a pimp for the White House. Liberals are wary of lobbyist influence; they criticized it from the other end, as a cash-for-access scheme.

Beyond the basic ethics of it, it's unsurprising that nobody jumped to defend the Post after Allen's story, given the concerns it played into on both ends of the spectrum.