A Sponsorship Scandal at The Post

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 Politico.com 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.

Within an hour of receiving the e-mail, Brauchli forwarded it to his top three editors -- managing editors Raju Narisetti and Liz Spayd, as well as deputy managing editor Milton Coleman -- asking their thoughts.

Spayd does not recall raising major concerns. "I thought we already had attached some key ground rules -- more than one sponsor, a balance of views, our ability to guide the conversation," she said. "In retrospect, that wasn't enough. We shouldn't have been doing them at all."

In his e-mailed response to Brauchli, Narisetti questioned using Weymouth's home ("bad idea for anything commercial") and added "we shouldn't commit to beat reporter." But he endorsed the concept and said it was fine for Brauchli to attend, although he added that "a couple of other relevant/key editorial people is the best we should promise."

Coleman, now a senior editor, said he offered a "first blush" response that agreed with Narisetti that Weymouth's home was not a good venue and that he vaguely recalls raising a concern about whether the evening might be off the record. He said he viewed the e-mail as a "preliminary document" and assumed he would be involved in further discussions as the event took shape.

About a month later, on June 24, roughly 200 managers were given a quick explanation of the "salons" idea at the end of a two-hour meeting in the cavernous auditorium on the lobby floor of The Post's downtown headquarters. These periodic "extended staff meetings," often including multiple short presentations, are held to brief managers on corporate strategy, and the details are considered confidential.

Some who were willing to describe the meeting, which was attended by a number of newsroom managers, said that near the end it included a PowerPoint presentation by Pelton, who noted there would be news department participation in "off the record" salon dinners.

The description might not be expected to raise concern with business-side managers unfamiliar with the newsroom's ethical policies. But several attending from the news side now say they were bothered by what they heard.

"I thought that this sounded a little dodgy," recalled Jeff Leen, who runs The Post's investigative unit. But he said he was aware that other publications had "experimented with them and I thought they were going to work out the details."

In an interview, Brauchli said it was his responsibility to vet the concept and that it is "understandable" that no news managers at the meeting raised a caution.

"When the publisher and the editor both appear to have signed off on an idea, I think it is perhaps true that a certain complacency sets in," he said. For that reason, lower-level managers might be less inclined "to stand up and say: 'Whoa, this is a bad idea.' "

Historically at quality newspapers such as The Post, a firewall exists between the business and news departments to ensure editorial integrity and independence. The Post has internal "Standards and Ethics" guidelines that stress the importance of newsroom neutrality.

The first line says: "This newspaper is pledged to avoid conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest, wherever and whenever possible." Later, it states the newspaper "is committed to disclosing to its readers the sources of the information in its stories to the maximum possible extent."

But the salon dinners ran counter to the spirit of both. By having outside underwriters, The Post was effectively charging for access to its newsroom personnel. Reporters or editors could easily be perceived as being in the debt of the sponsors. And by promising participants that their conversations would be private, those attending would be assured a measure of confidentiality that the news department typically opposes.

Weymouth and Brauchli came to realize all this was wrong -- but only after the controversy erupted. In separate interviews this week, they acknowledged this with candor, regret and embarrassment.

"Obviously, it didn't raise red flags for me or we wouldn't have gotten this far," Weymouth said of Pelton's May 21 e-mail. "In hindsight, I wish it had."

"I wish I had the perspective I now have of understanding how people would perceive an event like this," said Weymouth. "I didn't perceive it. It's my responsibility." Weymouth, a Harvard College and Stanford Law School graduate, joined the Post in 1996 and has held several positions, none in the newsroom. She is the granddaughter of the late Katharine Graham, the legendary Post publisher, and is the niece of Post Co. chief executive Donald E. Graham.

Brauchli, too, took blame.

"The Washington Post prides itself on its coverage of the intersection of monied interests and people who guide policy or make laws. And we should not be facilitating that intersection. We should be covering it."

How could it have happened?

Like many newspapers, The Post is losing money and seeking new streams of revenue. The idea of sponsored events seemed attractive because other news organizations have convened them. Big events, like seminars or conferences, can be lucrative, although the potential to be realized from 11 dinners would be comparatively small.

The "salon dinner" concept was a throwback to when Katharine Graham, as publisher, hosted private dinner parties for power brokers -- but on her own dime. Today, Atlantic Media Company, owner of the Atlantic and the National Journal, hosts sponsored, off-the-record gatherings similar to what The Post was proposing.

Seeing opportunity, The Post hired Pelton, a genial and enthusiastic Californian who had headed his own successful events firm. He was to focus on larger events, and the salons were a small part of his agenda. As is Weymouth's style for top managers, she gave him a long leash.

"We provide our -- we call them 'Business Unit Owners' -- tremendous autonomy," she said in an interview. "I think that is a good thing."

She and Pelton "talked about the importance of our newsroom integrity," she said. "He understood he needed to work very closely with the newsroom to make sure that everything we did was compliant with our standards."

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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company