Sunday, July 05, 2009

Rare Washington Post Apology Misses Mark

July 5, 2009, 11:00 a.m.

Post Publisher Blind to Journalism Ethics, Conflict
(brought to you by*)

UPDATE (N.J., July 11, 2009): Having been caught in a disastrous ethical blunder, one can at least give the Post credit for having an ombudsperson and permitting him to investigate and reveal in a lengthy story the details of what happened, how and why. Ombudsman Andrew Alexander, "A Sponsorship Scandal at The Post," Washington Post, July 12, 2009.

[What follows is the blog entry as it appeared on July 5:]

Newspapers, and other media seeped in the responsibility and ethics of true journalists, have long agonized over their inherent conflicts of interest.

For starters, big media is big business; any stories or editorials that seem to side with business (over, say, unions or consumers) are open to the interpretation they are merely self-serving.

A major share of their income is provided by other big businesses in the form of advertising. If a positive story runs about a major advertiser, or a negative story is killed, it raises a question as to whether the special treatment was, in effect, purchased.

A reporter who covers a regular beat (such as the State Department, or the auto industry) develops contacts and relationships that can develop into social relationships and friendships. At a minimum, really tough, critical "investigative journalism" may result in those essential sources drying up.

To respond to the conflicts they can do something about, newspapers may preclude reporters from doing stories about organizations (or political parties or candidates) to which they belong, or with which they are identified. Family relationships can also come into play.

I recall when papers (including the Post if my memory's correct) would insist on paying reporters' travel and other expenses when covering, for example, the networks' events in Hollywood promoting their "new fall season" -- notwithstanding the organizations' more than willingness to pay to get the reporters there.

It is against this background that the Washington Post new (17 months in office) CEO stunned the journalism world last week with Politico's report that she was overtly selling to corporate special interests and their lobbyists the opportunity to mingle with the elected and appointed officials controlling their destiny. (These are people the Post's powerful CEO could expect to respond favorably to an invitation to dinner.) She would also supply the Post reporters writing the stories on which these companies' fortunes would often turn. And the setting would be, where else, her own private dining room at home.

To provide this kind of access, in this kind of setting, and with reporters present, no less, does the Washington lobbyists -- who sell the same service -- one better. And considering the fact they charge by the millions of dollars, she was essentially giving away these benefits -- at $25,000 per dinner, or $250,000 per series.

Here's how the mess was described by the normally sympathetic New York Times:

Katharine Weymouth, the relatively new publisher of The Washington Post, is a lawyer who worked for the company for 12 years and was educated at the Harvard School of Business, so she is hardly a naïf in running a business.

But she has never worked in a newsroom, a gap in her résumé that may have contributed to her current problems.

As first reported in Politico, The Washington Post had sent out a brochure offering sponsorships — a fee of $25,000 for one, or $250,000 for an entire series — for an exclusive “Washington Post salon” at Ms. Weymouth’s home in which officials from Congress and the administration, lobbyists and, yes, the paper’s own reporters could have a quiet, off-the-record dinner, discussions to be led by Marcus Brauchli, the newspaper’s editor. Theoretically, you can’t buy Washington Post reporters, but you can rent them.

I guess it sounded like a good idea at the time. Access, and its very close cousin, influence, define the Beltway. Millions of dollars are spent on having the right lobbyists, flacks and lawyers so that you can end up in a room with people who control your destiny. . . .

Initially, the salon controversy . . . was explained away as the unfortunate result of an unvetted brochure sent out by an overzealous marketing employee . . ..

But . . . at least two of the invitations to political participants . . . came from the personal e-mail address of Ms. Weymouth. Mr. Brauchli [the Post Editor] insisted that he had not realized the full implications of the events even though [the marketing employee] told The Post’s ombudsman that the plan was “well developed with the newsroom.”

The absence of a credible explanation, compounded a grievous wound . . ..

(The fact that it was Politico that broke this story only added to the sting. . . . In the increasingly heated race between the mainstream media and newer, digitally enabled ones, much of the remaining competitive edge for legacy media derives from a perception that they adhere to more rigorous publishing standards. Oops.) . . .

Mr. Brauchli['s] . . . explanation for the salon mess — I planned to attend but did not understand exactly what the party was — has not helped. . . .

Ms. Weymouth’s initial explanation for the salon fiasco, also broke another Washington Post tradition: those who are handed the sword generally fall on it when trouble comes. . . .

Ms. Weymouth’s excuse — that the salon brochure “completely misrepresented what we were trying to do” didn’t track with many reporters . . ..

“Oh really? Then what were they trying to do?” said one reporter . . ..

“The people I know in the newsroom are still waiting for a lot better answer to what the goal was here, what was really happening with this idea, and how it got so far along without raising red flags,” Mr. Stuever added.

The reporters . . . are also staring down the prospect of serving as a punch line in Beltway circles for many years to come. The president’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, has already obliged by wondering aloud at a news conference whether he could afford to take a question from Michael Shear, a Post reporter.

Funny stuff, unless you are the reporter with your hand up. . . .

David Carr, "A Publisher Stumbles Publicly at the Post," New York Times, July 4, 2009, p. B1.

Well, this morning Ms. Weymouth had her turn -- and blew it. There are many lessons of journalism she has yet to learn -- at least this one of which she should have picked up at the Harvard Business School even if she had no experience with journalism.

There are always two stories following a public relations disaster. One is what was done -- in this case, creating a self-destructive conflict of interest by selling influence, and journalistic integrity, as a newspaper (and for a pittance).

The second story is how you handle it once you get caught. The Washington subway system, Metro, is currently dealing with this problem. So is South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford with his "business" (monkey and otherwise) in Argentina. So is Governor Sarah Palin with her precipitous resignation.

And so was Katharine Weymouth this morning.

As the White House occupants seem to illustrate at least once every new Administration, it's a lesson seemingly hard to learn.

In fairness, here is a reproduction of her letter, in full, with no editing by me:

Dear Reader:

I want to apologize for a planned new venture that went off track and for any cause we may have given you to doubt our independence and integrity. A flier distributed last week suggested that we were selling access to power brokers in Washington through dinners that were to take place at my home. The flier was not approved by me or newsroom editors, and it did not accurately reflect what we had in mind. But let me be clear: The flier was not the only problem. Our mistake was to suggest that we would hold and participate in an off-the-record dinner with journalists and power brokers paid for by a sponsor. We will not organize such events. As publisher it is my job to ensure that we adhere to standards that are consistent with our integrity as a news organization. Last week, I let you, and the organization, down. The Washington Post remains committed, now and always, to the highest standards of journalistic integrity. Nothing is more important to us than that, and nothing will shake that commitment.

So what happened? Like other media companies, The Post hosts conferences and live events that bring together journalists, government officials and other leaders for discussions of important topics. These events make news and inform their audiences. We had planned to extend this business to include smaller gatherings, a practice that has become common at other media companies.

From the outset, we laid down firm parameters to ensure that these events would be consistent with The Post's values. If the events were to be sponsored by other companies, everything would be at arm's length -- sponsors would have no control over the content of the discussions, and no special access to our journalists.

If our reporters were to participate, there would be no limits on what they could ask. They would have full access to participants and be able to use any information or ideas to further their knowledge and understanding of any issues under discussion. They would not be asked to invite other participants and would serve only as moderators.

When the flier promoting our first planned event to potential sponsors was released, it overstepped all these lines. Neither I nor anyone in our news department would have approved any event such as the flier described.

We have canceled the planned dinner. While I do believe there is a legitimate way to hold such events, to the extent that we hold events in the future, large or small, we will review the guidelines for them with The Post's top editors and make sure those guidelines are strictly followed. Further, any conferences or similar events The Post sponsors will be on the record.

We all make mistakes and hope to be forgiven for them. I apologize to our readers for the mistakes I made in this case.

We remain committed to you, our readers. We remain committed to the highest standards of integrity. And while we will continue to pursue new lines of business, we will never allow those new avenues to compromise our integrity.

In the meantime, I hope that we can continue to count you as a reader while we promise to continue to bring you the news as it develops, unbiased and with the best reporting and editing we can offer.

Yours respectfully,

Katharine Weymouth

Publisher and CEO, The Washington Post

Katharine Weymouth, "A Letter to Our Readers" ["a planned new venture that went off track"], Washington Post, July 5, 2009.

It sort of sounds like one of those non-apology apologies, "I'm sorry if any of you feel bad about what I did -- and besides, I didn't really do it anyway."

On the one hand she says, "the flier was not approved by me or newsroom editors . . . Neither I nor anyone in our news department would have approved any event such as the flier described," and on the other hand she asks to be "forgiven . . . for the mistakes I made in this case."

If this was all, really, somebody else's fault just what, exactly, were "the mistakes [she] made in this case"?

She includes a variation on the child's plea, "but other mommies let their boys do it": "Like other media companies, The Post hosts conferences . . .. We had planned to extend this business ["business"!?] to include smaller gatherings, a practice that has become common at other media companies."

She says "Neither I nor anyone in our news department would have approved any event such as the flier described," and yet this was an event she had agreed to hold in her home for which she was the hostess and for which the Editor of the paper had agreed to be the discussion leader?

There's no way she can get out of this one. One possibility is that she full well knew what the paper was about to do -- with a private dinner at her home to which members of Congress were invited with emails from her personal account, and for which special interests would pay the paper between $25,000 and $250,000 -- and oversaw every detail (as Lyndon Johnson continued to do as president), including the flier, invitation list, seating arrangement and menu.

The other possibility is that she is so inattentive as CEO that a policy and event of this precedent-breaking magnitude, requiring her personal involvement, could go on below her radar -- either because she has precisely defined what should, and should not, be brought to her attention by others (and this was in the category of things not worthy of her attention), or because it was brought to her attention and she simply didn't bother to inform herself about the details.

Neither is a very comforting hypothesis for the "Dear Readers" to whom she wrote.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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