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."
A lengthy email from Atlantic Media Chairman David Bradley explaining the practice of sponsored dinners was posted on The Atlantic's Web site yesterday. In it, Bradley says he sees value in the off-the-record sessions, but adds that the marketing materials advertising them "do not all reflect the central fact of our conversations -- dialogue and debate, without the advance of a particular interest." He writes that the spotlight generated by the Post controversy has prompted a renewed effort to "make sure that future materials reflect exactly the spirit and facts of" the Atlantic dinners.
Last week, The Post said a newly hired marketing executive, Charles Pelton, was responsible for the brochure that mischaracterized the first Post dinner, scheduled for July 21, focusing on health-care reform. Pelton, who remains employed as the newspaper's general manager of conferences and events, has not commented publicly since Thursday.
But while Post executives immediately disowned the flier's characterization, senior managers had already approved major details of the first dinner. They had agreed, for example, that the dinner would include the participation of Brauchli and some Post reporters; that the event would be off the record; that it would feature a wide-ranging guest list of people involved in reforming health care; and that it would have sponsorship.
Some members of the newsroom raised objections about attending an event at Weymouth's house. No change in plans was made.
The only unresolved question was whether the first event would have multiple sponsors or a single one. Brauchli and Weymouth have said they preferred multiple sponsors, to dilute the influence of any particular sponsor. Yet when Weymouth's office sent out e-mail invitations to the event early last week, only one sponsor, Kaiser Permanente, was listed. (Kaiser officials have said they had not decided whether to participate.)
Weymouth said she was on vacation last week and did not see the invitation that was sent out in her name. If she had, she said, she would have raised more questions about the event's planning.
Brauchli, Weymouth and Post Co. chief executive Donald Graham met individually and in small groups with Post journalists yesterday, seeking to reassure them and answer questions about the controversy.
"I thought it was helpful," said veteran political reporter Dan Balz. "I thought they were forthcoming in trying to explain how it happened. I think everyone still has questions about how this collective breakdown occurred. This was not just two people in a room. There were a number of discussions about it. That part concerned me. Everyone knows the dinners were a bad idea. If anyone didn't know that before, they know it now."