By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 3, 2009
Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth yesterday canceled plans for a series of policy dinners at her home after learning that marketing fliers offered corporate underwriters access to Post journalists, Obama administration officials and members of Congress in exchange for payments as high as $250,000.
"Absolutely, I'm disappointed," Weymouth 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."
The fliers were approved by a top Post marketing executive, Charles Pelton, who said it was "a big mistake" on his part and that he had done so "without vetting it with the newsroom." He said that Kaiser Permanente had orally agreed to pay $25,000 to sponsor a July 21 health-care dinner at Weymouth's Northwest Washington home, and that Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) had agreed to be a guest. Pelton, who serves as general manager for conferences and events, said he had invited two-dozen business executives, advocates and presidential health adviser Nancy-Ann DeParle. But a White House spokeswoman said no senior administration officials had agreed to attend, and an aide to DeParle said she had received no such invitation.
Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said he was "appalled" by the plan. "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 Post Co. fliers offered 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 yesterday by Politico.
The full-color flier for the July 21 dinner 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." The dinner, it said, 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."
Weymouth, who had not seen the marketing copy, said that "we will never compromise our journalistic integrity." But she said other news organizations sponsor similar conferences and that she remains comfortable with the basic idea of lobbyists or corporations underwriting dinners with officials and journalists as long as those paying the fees have no control over the content.
But precisely what would be acceptable remains unclear. Asked whether the forums she envisions might still be viewed as buying access to Post journalists, Weymouth said, "I suppose you could spin it that way, but that is not the way it would have been done." She said the situation would be comparable to a company buying an ad in the newspaper while knowing that it "might hate the content" on that page.
Brauchli, who is listed on the flier as a host and discussion leader, had been involved in discussions with Weymouth and other executives stretching back to last year. He said he made clear to the company's marketing division that Post journalists would participate only if they could control the nature of any such conference. Brauchli said his conditions included multiple sponsors for an extended series of forums, rather than companies financing a single dinner involving their industry; a balanced lineup of participants from across the political spectrum; and no charge for the invited guests.
But even with those caveats, the off-the-record format would ensure that The Post could not report on the discussions, even as its name was being used to lure high-profile newsmakers.
"We expressed our concerns and are disappointed by this outcome," Brauchli said of the fliers, which were labeled "Underwriting Opportunity." "I would ascribe it to a lack of effective communication internally."
Even without the newsroom's participation, the aggressively worded pitch conveys the impression that The Post is offering special interests access to administration officials and lawmakers, raising a separate set of concerns about a dubious partnership with those covered by the newspaper. The Post often questions whether corporations, unions and trade associations receive access or favors in return for campaign contributions.
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.
Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University's College of Communication, said news organizations should be a neutral broker among differing interests and that "what The Post was looking to do was to make a profit on the role of the convener. . . . The idea of crossing a boundary line that seems to me painted so brightly white, I'm astonished that it got this far."
Pelton co-owned Modern Media, a California-based firm that staged conferences, before joining The Post Co. two months ago. "We should never imply that there's a possible link between coming [to dinners] and access, either to the leaders or the policymakers or the journalists," he said, conceding that he had been "sloppy . . . in my enthusiasm to get the salons up and running without properly thinking through the implications of what was written."
John Spragens, a spokesman for Cooper, said that once the Tennessee Democrat learned the details of the dinner, he would not have attended "a radioactive event. . . . You don't want to be put in a position as a congressman where someone's buying access to you."
Sybil Wartenberg, a spokeswoman for California-based Kaiser Permanente, said the company had not made a final decision to finance the dinner -- no contract had been signed -- and was not attempting to buy influence. "Our organization is not as well-known on the East Coast," she said. "We're keenly interested in reform and want to be at the table for discussions."
The controversy led White House counsel Gregory Craig to remind administration officials that they need advance approval to participate in such events. His memo said that "federal ethics rules restricting the acceptance of gifts govern your ability to accept free admission to events put on by a nongovernmental sponsor."
A number of media companies charge substantial fees for conferences with big-name executives and government officials, but in many cases the sessions are open for news coverage.
This week, for instance, Atlantic Media is sponsoring the Aspen Ideas Festival, underwritten by Altria, Boeing, Booz Allen Hamilton, Ernst & Young, Mercedes-Benz, Philips, Shell and Thomson Reuters. Speakers include White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and Google CEO Eric Schmidt, along with journalists for Atlantic and other media outlets.
Atlantic Editor James Bennet said the festival, co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute, "is open to the press . . . and we're videotaping it. We have editorial control over it. We decide what the panels are and who's on them. There are absolutely no constraints put on it at all."
In March, the Wall Street Journal brought together global finance leaders -- including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd -- for a two-day conference sponsored by Nasdaq and hosted by Robert Thomson, the Journal's top editor, and other editors and reporters. Outside journalists were invited to the session, which was on the record and webcast by the Journal. Participants, who paid several thousand dollars to attend, also had a White House meeting with economic adviser Lawrence Summers, which was off the record at his request.
The Journal also holds conferences with its All Things Digital unit. A session in May, described as offering "unmatched access to the technology industry's elite," was sponsored by Hewlett-Packard and Qualcomm, among others, and featured the CEOs of Microsoft, Yahoo, NBC Universal, AT&T and Twitter, as well as Weymouth.
The New Yorker hosts an annual festival in Manhattan featuring its editors and writers along with other journalists, authors and entertainers. The gathering planned for October is sponsored by American Airlines, Delta, Westin Hotels and Banana Republic.
Weymouth has come under increasing pressure to find new sources of revenue. The Post Co. lost $19.5 million in the first quarter and just completed its fourth round of early-retirement buyouts in several years.
Many Post journalists were stunned by the Politico story and angry about the fliers. Weymouth told the staff in an afternoon e-mail that the flier "completely misrepresented what we were trying to do," but added: "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."