September 21, 2012

Was The Post too cozy with the American Petroleum Institute — the main oil and gas industry lobby — which sponsored two Washington Post Live panel discussions on energy policy at the recent political conventions?

And when it published two pages of excerpts from these discussions, should The Post have disclosed who sponsored the events?

These are among the questions raised by the left-leaning media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, which got its many followers to shower me with e-mails objecting to the way The Post handled the events and published excerpts.

Post Live is a division of The Washington Post Co. that produces on-the-record newsmaker events and expert panel discussions on national issues.

Such events are a growing part of the news business and a growing source of revenue, not just for The Post but also for other publications. My former employer, National Journal, does many such events, as does its sister publication, the Atlantic. So do the Wall Street Journal, Politico and a host of other D.C.-centered publications.

No one is charged admission to these events, and they’re popular among Capitol Hill staff, lobbyists, reporters and policymakers, who attend to get the latest expert thinking in a policy field.

These events earn revenue through corporate sponsorships. The corporations pay a fee and may pay for rental of the event room and refreshments. In return, they get to put their logos all over the room, receive nice thank-yous from the moderator when the event begins and be perceived by the audience as a player in that policy arena.

Accordingly, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and The Post sponsored panel discussions in Tampa and Charlotteon the differences between President Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s energy plans and what they might mean for the future of energy policy.

But let’s be clear on some points:

Mary Jordan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist in charge of Post Live, did not consult API on whom to invite. She and her staff did the inviting, wrote the questions, moderated the discussion and chose the excerpts that were published in the paper. API, Jordan said, had no editorial input, nor do other corporate sponsors of Post Live events.

The energy discussions had two additional sponsors, Hilton Worldwide and Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications company. And the event was co-hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank whose name actually means what it says.

Panelists included members of Congress, nonpartisan energy experts, and oil and gas industry representatives. The speakers were not paid; they came voluntarily.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting makes a couple of worthwhile points. First, “Entirely missing from this ‘debate’ were environmentalists or any strong critics of the fossil fuel industry,” stated the group’s action alert. That was certainly true at the Tampa panel. In Charlotte, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a strong environmentalist, appeared. No representatives from any of the major environmental groups were present, however, at either panel.

Jordan said she invited representatives from two well-known national environmental groups, but they declined. Part of the problem, Jordan said, was the timing of the conventions — many people were on vacation in late August and around Labor Day, and lots of groups decided to skip the conventions this year.

The second point the watchdog group made is that The Post’s two-page spread on Sept. 11 should have said that API, under its Vote 4 Energy campaign, sponsored the events. I agree. In the paper’s explanation about Post Live, I think the corporate sponsors should have been named, along with a sentence pointing out that sponsors had no editorial input on Post Live events. Jordan said she plans to do that for future published excerpts.

With the economic model for the news business broken, the pressure to get more revenue from these corporate-sponsored events is considerable. But they almost always come close to the line of looking like pay-for-a-point-of-view. It’s important that the rules on these events be clear to readers and that participants come from a wide spectrum of views.

Journalists are in the business of transparency; it’s incumbent that we bend over backward to behave that way.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.