Washington Post sorry after sale of political dinners turns sour

Readers and journalists protest over newspaper's bid to profit from lobbyists
Click to follow
The Independent US

Newspapers prefer to report the news, not generate it, and few more so than the Washington Post. But the publication which broke the Watergate story, which is in dire financial circumstances, has found itself in the middle of a very uncomfortable scandal entirely of its own making – and all because somebody upstairs had a (batty) brainwave to help mitigate the red ink.

As a result, Katharine Weymouth, the Post's publisher since early last year, is truly in the dog house with readers and her own reporters. It was her marketing department who dreamt up a series of 11 dinners at her house at which – for a large fee – lobbyists and members of industry associations could break bread with politicians, aides in the Barack Obama administration as well as key members of her reporting staff to mull tricky issues of the day.

Upon learning of the scheme, from the pages of politico.com, the Post newsroom by all accounts went bananas. True, other well known media brands, including The Economist and The New Yorker, regularly organise panel discussions and other gatherings involving their reporters for which participants can be charged. But generally speaking, these are on-the-record, public events. Not so the "exclusive" Weymouth dinners.

When Politico blew the whistle, brochures for the first dinner, to have focused on healthcare reform, had already been circulated and some invitations emailed. The hope was that at least one industry participant, and maybe several, would fork out $25,000 (£15,600) to sponsor the dinner: a useful sum of money given that the Post company lost a record $19.5m in the first quarter of this year.

"Bring your organisation's CEO or executive director literally to the table," the brochures excitedly suggested. "Interact with key Obama administration and congressional leaders. Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No. The relaxed setting in the home of Katharine Weymouth assures it."

Except that there won't be any dinners. "I want to apologise for a planned new venture that went off track," Ms Weymouth said in a letter to readers, "and for any cause we may have given you to doubt our independence and integrity".

Weymouth, the granddaughter of legendary Post publisher Katharine Graham, has never worked in a newsroom, a fact that has not necessarily endeared her to her employees in the current circumstances.

The paper's website announced an internal investigation into how such an idea was ever even considered. Meanwhile, the paper's executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, and its CEO, Donald Graham, are spending this week meeting with small groups of reporters to assure them the whole thing was a mistake. "We should be in the business of shining bright lights on dark corners, not creating the dark corners," Mr Brauchli said.

"I thought it was helpful," a veteran political reporter at the paper, Dan Balz, said of the newsroom huddles. "I thought they were forthcoming in trying to explain how it happened. I think everyone still has questions about how this collective breakdown occurred."

It could be argued, of course, that this is a very American brouhaha. Virtually from birth, reporters in the US are drilled with a rigid code of ethics and objectivity that can get in the way of informative and – heaven forefend – stimulating journalism. Lobbyists invited to these dinners would have been paying partly for access to the reporters, and some – presumably including those behind the idea at the Post – would say that the reporters could benefit as well. But even the slightest suggestion of a conflict is anathema in serious journalistic circles in the US.

The New York Times, engaged in its own struggle to divine new sources of revenue in an increasingly disastrous business environment, actually opined that the revelations at the Post were a "grievous wound" to its reputation.

"It sort of pits the newspaper's loyalty to its entire audience against the loyalty of a handful of people who have a lot of money and access," explained Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, a respected journalism think tank. "We can't allow our desperate need to make money to undermine our core credibility."

Comments