Post publisher cancels plans for exclusive access 'salons'

by Howard Kurtz, Washington Post

Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth today canceled plans for a series of policy dinners at her home after learning that marketing fliers offered lobbyists access to Obama administration officials, members of Congress and Post journalists in exchange for payments as high as $250,000.

"Absolutely, I'm disappointed," Weymouth, the chief executive of Washington Post Media, said in an interview. "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."

Moments earlier, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said in a separate interview that he was "appalled" by the plan and had insisted before the cancellation that the newsroom would not participate.

"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."

The fliers, circulated by the paper's parent company, offering an "intimate and exclusive Washington Post Salon, an off-the-record dinner and discussion at the home of CEO and Publisher Katharine Weymouth." The fliers, which said participants would be charged $25,000 to sponsor a single salon and $250,000 to underwrite an annual series of 11 sessions, were reported this morning by Politico.

"We do not offer access to the newsroom for money," Brauchli said. "We just are not in that business." He told the staff in an e-mail that the newsroom would have no part of this plan, writing: "Our independence from advertisers or sponsors is inviolable."

One such flier said: "Bring your organization's CEO or executive director literally to the table. Interact with key Obama Administration and Congressional leaders . . . Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No. The relaxed setting in the home of Katharine Weymouth assures it." That flier said a July 21 session would involve "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."

Two Post executives familiar with the planning, who declined to be identified discussing internal planning, said the fliers appear to be the product of overzealous marketing executives. The fliers were overseen by Charles Pelton, a Post executive hired this year as a conference organizer. He was not immediately available for comment.

Weymouth knew of the plans to host small dinners at her home and to charge lobbying and trade organizations for participation. But, one of the executives said, she believed that there would be multiple sponsors, to minimize any appearance of charging for access, and that the newsroom would be in charge of the scope and content of any dinners in which Post reporters and editors participated.

Brauchli said he had been involved in discussions, stretching back to last year, about newsroom participation in conferences of the sort commonly staged by major news organizations.

But he said he made clear to the company's marketing officials that Post journalists would participate only if they could substantially control the nature of any such conference. Brauchli said he was blindsided by the wording of these fliers and that they are an embarrassment to the newspaper.

"We expressed our concerns and are disappointed by this outcome," he said of the previous meetings with Post executives. "I would ascribe it to a lack of effective communication internally." Brauchli told the staff in his memo that the newsroom would participate in conferences or forums only "in ways that are consistent with our values."

The aggressively worded pitch gives the impression that The Post is selling access to special interests, not just to administration officials and lawmakers -- which raises a separate set of questions about cozy relationships -- but to the people who produce the newspaper. The Post often raises questions about whether corporations, unions and trade associations receive access or favors in return for campaign contributions to political candidates.

Now the fliers have raised the question of whether the newspaper itself is pursuing such a strategy in exchange for hefty fees from special-interest groups. Access to Weymouth herself, a granddaughter of longtime publisher Katharine Graham who took over as chief executive of Washington Post Media last year, would be deemed valuable by those trying to influence The Post's editorial policies and news coverage.

The Post Co. lost $19.5 million in the first quarter and just completed its fourth round of early-retirement buyouts in several years, prompting Weymouth to look for new sources of revenue.

article originally published at Washington Post.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey