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."
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. 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. At this juncture, we will not be holding the planned July dinner and we will not hold salon dinners involving the newsroom. "
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. "We do believe that there is a viable way to expand our expertise into live conferences and events that simply enhances what we do - cover Washington for Washingtonians and those interested in Washington," she said. " And we will begin to do live events in ways that enhance our reputation and in no way call into question our integrity."
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."
Brauchli said in an interview that he understood the business side of the Post planned on holding dinners on policy and was scheduled to attend the July 21 dinner at Weymouth's Washington home, but he said he had not seen the material promoting it until today. "The flier, and the description of these things, was not at all consistent with the preliminary conversations the newsroom had," Brauchli said, adding that it was "absolutely impossible" the newsroom would participate in the kind of event described in the solicitation for the event.
"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."
The flier promised the dinner would be held in an intimate setting with no unseemly conflict between participants. "Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No," it said. "The relaxed setting in the home of Katharine Weymouth assures it. What is guaranteed is a collegial evening, with Obama administration officials, Congress members, business leaders, advocacy leaders and other select minds typically on the guest list of 20 or less. ...
Brauchli emphasized that the newsroom had given specific parameters to the paper's business staff that he said were apparently not followed. He said that for newsroom staffers to participate, they would have to be able to ask questions and that he would "reserve the right to allow any information or ideas that emerge from an event to shape or inform our coverage." That directly contradicts the solicitation to potential sponsors, which billed the dinner as "off-the-record."
"Our mission in the news department is to serve an audience," Brauchli said, "not serve our sponsors."
"We do not use the Post's name or our journalists to gain access to officials or sources for the benefit of non-news purposes," he continued.
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."
Brauchli declined to comment on whether anyone on the business side would be held responsible for the abortive plan. He said that would be a decision for either Weymouth or Stephen Hills, The Post's president and general manager.
But regarding future events, Brauchli said: "I would hope that everybody in the Washington Post Company is always sensitive to the importance of the newsroom's integrity and independence."
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."This was well-developed with the newsroom," Pelton told Alexander. "What was not developed was the marketing message to potential sponsors."
According to Alexander, who called the flier a "public relations disaster," Pelton told him: "There's no intention to influence or peddle." "There's no intention to have a Lincoln Bedroom situation," referring to charges that President Bill Clinton used invitations to stay at the White House as a way of luring political backing.
Pelton did not return a phone call from POLITICO.
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.
Kris Coratti, communications director of Washington Post Media, a division of The Washington Post Company, said the flier "came out of a business division for conferences and events, and the newsroom was unaware of such communication. It went out before it was properly vetted, and this draft does not represent what the company's vision for these dinners are, which is meant to be an independent, policy-oriented event for newsmakers.
"As written, the newsroom could not participate in an event like this. We do believe there is an opportunity to have a conferences and events business, and that The Post should be leading these conversations in Washington, big or small, while maintaining journalistic integrity. The newsroom will participate where appropriate."
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."
The first "Salon" was to be called "Health-Care Reform: Better or Worse for Americans? The reform and funding debate." More were anticipated, and the flier described the opportunities for participants:
"Offered at $25,000 per sponsor, per Salon. Maximum of two sponsors per Salon. Underwriters' CEO or Executive Director participates in the discussion. Underwriters appreciatively acknowledged in printed invitations and at the dinner. Annual series sponsorship of 11 Salons offered at $250,000 ... Hosts and Discussion Leaders ... Health-care reporting and editorial staff members of The Washington Post ... An exclusive opportunity to participate in the health-care reform debate among the select few who will actually get it done. ... A Washington Post Salon ... July 21, 2009 6:30 p.m. ...
"Washington Post Salons are extensions of The Washington Post brand of journalistic inquiry into the issues, a unique opportunity for stakeholders to hear and be heard," the flier says. "At the core is a critical topic of our day. Dinner and a volley of ideas unfold in an evening of intelligent, news-driven and off-the-record conversation. ... By bringing together those powerful few in business and policy-making who are forwarding, legislating and reporting on the issues, Washington Post Salons give life to the debate. Be at this nexus of business and policy with your underwriting of Washington Post Salons."
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."
Gibbs said that the White House counsel would review such invitations and that they "would likely exceed" what would be considered appropriate.