Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Contacts for cash at WaPo?

Proving the relevancy of the academic discipline I'm inventing, a scandal over WaPo (as reported by has blown up over the last week.

According to a Thursday, July 2nd, Politico article (Washington Post cancels lobbyist event amid uproar), a health lobbyist who received a flier about a fundraising salon provided the flier to journalists because he felt it was a conflict of interest.

The article reports that the flier read, in part: "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."

Obviously, an instant and major objection is the phrasing "alter the debate." While it's literally true, language like "the right people," "alter the debate," "intimate and exclusive," and finally "$250,000" - the price tag - imply influence peddling, not merely discussion and information sharing.

That aside, is this merely a PR nightmare, or an actual ethics explosion?

In her apology, Weymouth writes "I do believe there is a legitimate way to hold such events."

The article linked above reports that Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, disagrees. She argues: "The bottom line, so to speak, is not what was said on the fliers about paying big bucks and getting a seat at Weymouth's dinner table. It is that the fliers were honest about the nature of the offering: contacts for cash."

It seems to boil down to the question of whether or not the event is on the record. Because this dinner would not be, it implied that the journalists of the Washington Post were available for purchase - for officials to pick their brains and influence them without direct reportage, and for lobbyists to use reporters to get to officials. Obviously, this violates the ideal of independent reporting.

Weymouth outlines what she sees as the ethically correct approach: "If our reporters were to participate, there would be no limits on what they could ask. They would have full access to participants and be able to use any information or ideas to further their knowledge and understanding of any issues under discussion. They would not be asked to invite other participants and would serve only as moderators."

The opposing view is that any paid off-the-record access compromises journalistic integrity, because it has journalists entering into a financial arrangement with the people that they are covering.

Kanter, quoted above, said, "Let's hope that the Chinese wall between the news side and the business side doesn't crumble under current intense financial pressure as the industry transforms."

I've tended to argue the opposite - I want it to crumble. I think the mitigated, residual, but influential leakage of business concerns still affects the news as it is reported. I believe that a large and powerful news organization such as the Washington Post is better able to insulate itself from those effects, but that when spillover does happen, it reaches further; and that a smaller organization is impacted by more limited concerns but more likely to be forced to consider them.

I agree with a statement from David Bradley, the owner of Atlantic Media, in an internal memo (as reported by MediaBistro's Fishbowl blog): "The imperative, as I see it, is to rebuild journalism on different financial pillars."

In addition to being succinct, this statement is interesting because of what Atlantic Media does. For six years, the company has hosted off-the-record dinners for a price. The memo quoted was written in response to the WaPo scandal, discussing the issues as he saw them: secrecy, motives, the issue of off-the-record, editorial staff involvement and marketing materials.

He wrote, "As the whole of our enterprise surely knows, the economic foundation beneath journalism is falling away. Ten years ago, 55% of The Atlantic's revenues derived from print advertising. Today, that figure is 29%. I think I will be more comfortable, still, when that dependence falls below 20%. The imperative, as I see it, is to rebuild journalism on different financial pillars. One of them, and not inconsequential to us, is events of all types."

I want it to be possible for people with money to give it to journalists. I really do. And I think that sponsored dinners, if handled correctly, are no more influential than running advertising in news pages...and maybe less. How, though, do we ensure that they are "handled correctly" when the doors are closed?

An aside: a critical opinion piece seems to me to have jumped on the bandwagon facing the wrong way, perceiving the victims to be "the citizens of the District of Columbia," as the planned event did not discuss their civic issues. WaPo has significant national concerns as well as local, and if the Examiner would like to see a better approach to those local civic issues, that's fine - but it has nothing to do with this planned dinner. A significant problem when addressing ethics concerns is exploding the ground. Let's deal with one issue at a time, people.

Sunday, July 5th, Washington Post: Publisher Katharine Weymouth writes letter of apology to readers
Sunday, July 5th, Washington Post: Post Publisher acknowledges mistakes
Monday, July 6th, Politico: WaPo launches internal review

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