The Stumbles That Led to an Ethics Blunder

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Washington Post's ill-fated plan to sell sponsorships of off-the-record "salons" was an ethical lapse of monumental proportions.

Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli have now taken full responsibility for what was envisioned as a series of 11 intimate dinners to discuss public policy issues. For a fee of up to $25,000, underwriters were guaranteed a seat at the table with lawmakers, administration officials, think tank experts, business leaders and the heads of associations. Promotional materials said Weymouth, Brauchli and at least one Post reporter would serve as "Hosts and Discussion Leaders" for an evening of spirited but civil dialogue.

While Brauchli and Weymouth say they should have realized long ago that the plan was flawed, internal e-mails and interviews show questions about ethics were raised with both of them months ago. They also show that blame runs deeper. Beneath Brauchli and Weymouth, three of the most senior newsroom managers received an e-mail with details of the plan.

Lower down, others inside and outside the newsroom were aware that sponsored events would involve news personnel in off-the-record settings, although they lacked details. Several now say they didn't speak up because they assumed top managers would eventually ensure that traditional ethics boundaries would not be breached.

Neither Weymouth nor Brauchli can recall anyone raising concerns, although both say they wish someone had.

They were all aboard a fast-moving vehicle that, over a period of months, roared through ethics stop signs and plowed into a brick wall.

The crash occurred July 2, when disclosed details of a Post flier seeking underwriters for the first dinner to be held July 21 at Weymouth's District residence. The damage was predictable and extensive, with charges of hypocrisy against a newspaper that owes much of its fame to exposing influence peddlers and Washington's pay-to-play culture. The Post's reputation now carries a lasting stain.

A key player in the controversy is Charles Pelton, who joined the company May 18 as general manager of a new Washington Post Conferences & Events business. A veteran of the events business who has a background in journalism, he provided The Post's sales staff with the now-famous flier that sought underwriters for the July 21 dinner. It promised an evening of "news-driven and off-the-record conversation. Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No." And it said participants could "build crucial relationships with Washington Post news executives in a neutral and informal setting."

When it was disclosed, Brauchli and Weymouth say they were stunned. Both said they had not seen the flier in advance, that it miscast what was envisioned and that it ran counter to The Post's values. Brauchli said "parameters" had been discussed with Pelton that, among other things, included "multiple sponsors" and not a single sponsor with a vested interest.

In an e-mailed statement Friday, Pelton said: "This is a new venture, there were some stumbles and too much of a rush to the finish. And I've taken responsibility for my part in this. However, I strongly believe that journalism must support more than a newspaper and a set of Web sites. It needs new avenues of expression -- and revenue -- and live events are just one of these."

Some at The Post view Pelton as overly eager and not attuned to the newsroom's ethical sensitivities. But Pelton raised questions about some of those very issues in a May 21 e-mail to Weymouth, Brauchli and Stephen P. Hills, The Post's president and general manager. Pelton reports to Hills, who declined to be interviewed.

The e-mail said the plan to hold the dinners at Weymouth's home "speaks to heavy editorial involvement" through "mixing different editors and beat reporters." But in arguing for "background only" discussions, Pelton asked if they thought the discussions should be "on or off the record." And while he endorsed the sponsorship idea, noting there would always be "more than one," he also said "I want to be sure our newsroom is also comfortable" with the arrangement.

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