Post's Canceled Series of 'Salon' Dinners Again Called Into Question

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 18, 2009

The controversy over a now-defunct plan to hold off-the-record dinners at the home of The Washington Post's publisher, underwritten by corporate sponsors, has bubbled up again.

When the story broke in July after the release of a marketing flier, Publisher Katharine Weymouth canceled the planned series of dinners, called salons, and apologized. Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said at the time that he was involved in planning discussions, which included whether Post journalists could make some use of what they learned at the dinners.

On Saturday, the New York Times published a clarification, labeled a postscript, to a Sept. 12 article, that questioned part of Brauchli's account of the dinners, which were slated to include Post journalists, members of Congress and administration officials. Brauchli, who acknowledges that he didn't fight the salon proposal hard enough, subsequently said the Times had misunderstood him.

The Times quoted Brauchli in July as saying that the newsroom would "reserve the right to allow any ideas that emerge in an event to shape or inform our coverage," and paraphrased him in the September article as saying he had not known that the dinners were being promoted as off-the-record events. In Brauchli's view, this would mean information from guests could be used, though not attributed, in news stories -- a less troubling situation for journalists than dinners at which the discussion cannot be used at all. That, however, is not how the salons were promoted in the flier, which sought to sell corporate sponsorships of $25,000 per dinner.

Charles Pelton, who had been The Post's general manager for special events and approved the flier that had not been seen by Brauchli, prompted the Times's postscript. Pelton resigned last month after several weeks of negotiations with the company.

Pelton's lawyer gave the Times a Sept. 25 letter in which Brauchli told Pelton: "I knew that the salon dinners were being promoted as off the record. That fact was never hidden from me by you or anybody else. . . . The New York Times reporter apparently misunderstood me." Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty said the paper's postscript "is clear and speaks for itself."

Brauchli said Saturday: "I have consistently said that my intention was that Post journalists only participate in events if the content could be used to inform our journalism. . . . I was aware, as I have said since July 2, that some materials described the proposed salon dinner as an off-the-record event. As I have also said before, I should have insisted that the language be changed before it surfaced in any marketing material."

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