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The Stumbles That Led to an Ethics Blunder

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Brauchli conferred with Pelton about the salon dinners. At one point they showed up at the newsroom desk of reporter Ceci Connolly, who covers health care, which was to be the discussion topic of the July 21 dinner. Subsequently, she said, "Charles asked me for some contact phone numbers and e-mails, which I provided."

Brauchli said that Pelton believed that "in order for these things to succeed, they need to be on background. And I think the language went from 'background' to 'off the record' which, from my perspective now, [is] even worse."

The nomenclature is important because the terms mean different things to different people. Within The Post, they are distinct.

The Post's internal stylebook equates "background" with "not for attribution," meaning that statements and information can be reported and attributed to a confidential source.

But "off the record" means "information cannot be used, either in the paper or in further reporting." So for newsroom personnel, any information gleaned at a salon dinner would be useless.

Initial plans had envisioned starting the dinners in September. But Weymouth said Pelton was eager to begin in July and she said "terrific, let's do it."

Planning moved forward.

On June 12, Post advertising employees received a Word document from Pelton on June 12 titled "Washington Post Conferences" that touted sponsorship opportunities for a menu of events. Under "Washington Post Salons" it promised newsroom participation by "Executive editor, key section editor, beat reporter (optional)" and said the evening would be "off the record."

On June 17, another Word document was provided by Pelton to The Post's advertising staff soliciting a $25,000 sponsorship -- "Maximum of two sponsors" -- for the July dinner. Under "Hosts and Discussion Leaders," it listed Weymouth, Brauchli and "Other Washington Post health care editorial and reporting staff." It said participants could "Interact with core players in an off-the-record format."

A week later, the flier was distributed to the ad sales staff.

At the same time, e-mails were being sent over Weymouth's name to lawmakers and others inviting them to the July 21 dinner. They said she, Brauchli and "health care reporter Ceci Connolly" were hosting the evening. An accompanying invitation said it would be off the record and noted that it would be underwritten by a single sponsor, Kaiser Permanente. As it turned out, Kaiser Permanente had committed verbally but had not signed a contract.

The flier made its way into the hands of a reporter for Politico, which broke the story.

As of late this week, only two Post readers cited the controversy as a reason for canceling their subscription. Only about 50 readers had written critical letters to the editor, about half the number The Post typically receives on a controversial topic.

But the criticism of The Post has been withering in the blogosphere, among commentators and the Washington establishment. The episode has left a scar that will be visible for years, and it has badly shaken the newsroom.

"Marcus has learned a lesson. I have learned a lesson. Everyone has learned a lesson," Weymouth said.

"I'm the leader of the organization. If anyone should have stopped it, it should have been me," she added, saying that whether she remains as publisher is "up to Don," her uncle.

When the question was put to Graham, who was traveling, he e-mailed: "Katharine is an outstanding publisher of the Post; she understands the values that are central to the Post and upholds them very well."

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For excerpts from his interviews with Post managers or to read outside journalists' advice to The Post's publisher, read the Omblog.


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