Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Salons and solons

On July 2, Politico broke the story on the Washington Post’s plan to sell seats at their own form of dinner theater:

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.

I like the word “even” there at the end, as if somehow WaPo selling access to its own employees is more remarkable than it selling access to government officials. Yet much of the commentary I’ve read does focus on how terrible it is for the paper to apparently sell access to its staff. The story came to light because a lobbyist who was solicited for the events “felt it was a conflict for the paper to charge for access to ... its ‘health care reporting and editorial staff.’" Along the same lines, a Howard Kurtz article in WaPo itself reports:

Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said he was "appalled" by the plan. "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."

An article by the Post’s ombudsman quotes Katharine Weymouth, Post publisher and hostess of the salons as saying:

Sponsorship of events, like advertising in the newspaper, must be at arm's length and cannot imply control over the content or access to our journalists.

Certainly the idea that a newspaper might be willing to sell its reporting to a series of dinner guests is deeply disturbing. But what is far more interesting and disturbing to me is the idea that a newspaper can - for the right price - deliver up members of the Administration and of Congress. Am I the only person upset by this? True, both Kurtz’ article and the ombudsman’s article raise this issue albeit somewhat briefly:

Even without the newsroom's participation, the aggressively worded pitch conveys the impression that The Post is offering special interests access to administration officials and lawmakers, raising a separate set of concerns about a dubious partnership with those covered by the newspaper. The Post often questions whether corporations, unions and trade associations receive access or favors in return for campaign contributions. [snip]

Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University's College of Communication, said news organizations should be a neutral broker among differing interests and that "what The Post was looking to do was to make a profit on the role of the convener. . . . The idea of crossing a boundary line that seems to me painted so brightly white, I'm astonished that it got this far."

The problem: The Post often decries those who charge for access to public officials. This raised the specter of a money-losing newspaper doing the same thing -- and charging for access to its own reporters and editors as well.

Note however that while both Kurtz and the ombudsman are suggesting it is probably unethical for the Post to promise lobbyists that their money will buy government officials as fellow dinner guests, neither appears to even consider that the Post might not be able to deliver on that promise.

To his credit, Jim Cooper, the Congressman who agreed (perhaps understandably) to attend the first Post salon has said (via a spokesman) that once he understood the nature of the dinner “he would not have attended ‘a radioactive event. . . . You don't want to be put in a position as a congressman where someone's buying access to you.’” Similarly, the White House has denied that any Administration official had agreed to attend any of the salons and has taken this opportunity to remind staffers of the ethics rules under which they work.

All well and good. But unless the Washington Post is suffering from delusions of grandeur - and those outside the Post who are writing about this story share that delusion - the Post would have been able to deliver up public officials to lobbyists willing to pay for them. Call me old-fashioned but that seems at least as wrong as the Post delivering up its own employees for cash on the barrelhead.

I’m almost sorry this story broke before the first salon: it would have been interesting to see which non-paying, non-Post guests would have made an appearance.


bluelyon said...

Oh yeah, there were others disturbed by this. Short, short list...

The Confluence, July 3

Somerby, July 3

lambert at Corrente, July 2

bluelyon said...

I meant to say...this is ONLY a short list. Yikes. More coffee please. Or maybe I should just give up, jump in the shower and head off to work.

Elise said...

Thanks. I thought Somersby's take was interesting - that it wasn't WaPo selling access so much as it was the elite laying down the law.