Internal Review Launched on Post Salon Proposal

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 7, 2009; 9:55 AM

The Washington Post yesterday initiated internal reviews to ensure that its business practices do not compromise its journalistic ethics when the newspaper organizes conferences or private events funded by sponsors.

The reviews follow the revelation last week that The Post was planning private, off-the-record dinners at the home of publisher Katharine Weymouth for which it was seeking sponsors to pay $25,000 to underwrite each session and participate in salon-style discussions with politicians and journalists. Weymouth abruptly canceled the dinners after a marketing flier promoted the first event as a "non-confrontational" opportunity to influence policymakers. The publisher and newsroom editors said that they never saw the flier before it went out and that it distorted the dinner's intent.

Weymouth yesterday appointed the newspaper's general counsel, Eric Lieberman, to review the discussions that led to the controversy. The review, along with a parallel inquiry by Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli and Senior Editor Milton Coleman, is aimed at avoiding another episode that could damage the paper's reputation.

"We think we know what happened, but we want to know if there were any details we missed or if there was something we overlooked," Weymouth said in an interview. "If any of our business practices aren't clear, we'll amend them."

In meetings with Post journalists yesterday, Brauchli acknowledged that the dinners themselves -- not just the material promoting them -- were problematic and should have been rejected during their planning. A newspaper that prides itself on covering the intersection of power and money should not be creating a venue for such activity, he said.

"We should be in the business of shining bright lights on dark corners, not creating the dark corners," Brauchli said.

Many news organizations have ventured into the lucrative event and conference business in recent years to try to find new sources of revenue for their declining print and online operations. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Economist, the New Yorker, Newsweek (owned by The Washington Post Co.) and dozens of trade magazines host events that feature their journalists in panel discussions and interviews with newsmakers.

Unlike The Post's canceled dinners, these events are open to the public and on the record, meaning that journalists are free to report any statements made.

The Atlantic magazine, however, has staged more than 100 events over the past six years that are similar to what The Post envisioned. The magazine regularly invites a group of 20 to 40 influential participants to discussions that are closed, sponsored and off the record.

Each of the Atlantic events is sponsored by a single organization or company with a vested interest in the discussion and in influencing its participants. Thus, an energy company might sponsor a discussion about energy policy, or an employee union might sponsor a discussion about pension reform.

The arrangement raises the same ethical issues as those of The Post's controversial dinners: Is the news organization using its good journalistic name to deliver decision makers to sponsors who want to influence them, while limiting the public's participation? said Kelly McBride, head of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training organization.

Atlantic spokesman Zachary Hooper declined to identify participants or sponsors of the magazine's salon dinners. He said that clear ground rules were set: "From the outset, we've said there are no guarantees of access to any individual or guarantee of influence over any decision. The discussions are under the complete editorial control of our staff."

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