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Washington Post Under Fire Over Pay-for-access Plan

July 6, 2009 at 6:30 PM EST
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Washington Post publisher Katherine Weymouth apologized to readers for a controversy over the newspaper's plan for a series of corporate-sponsored policy dinners at Weymouth's home. Media experts mull the implications of the scandal.
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JEFFREY BROWN: It was an unusual headline and apology in yesterday’s Washington Post, “A Letter to our Readers,” direct from the publisher, Katharine Weymouth. The letter was in response to a story that broke Thursday in Politico detailing how the publisher had planned a series of policy dinners at her home, marketed by fliers that offered corporate underwriters access to Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and Washington Post journalists, in exchange for payments of $25,000 per dinner or $250,000 for a series of 11 dinners.

Three days later, Weymouth wrote in her paper, “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.”

Weymouth said the flier was not approved by her or her newsroom editors and did not accurately reflect what she had in mind. “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.”

Weymouth canceled the first so-called “salon,” which had been scheduled for July 21st, with a focus on health care policy.

For his part, executive editor Marcus Brauchli said the original plan had been for the dinners to have multiple sponsors to avoid the appearance that a single corporate entity could control the dialogue.

And joining me now to look at the Washington Post situation and beyond, Geneva Overholser, director of the School of Journalism at the University of Southern California. She’s a former editor of the Des Moines Register and served as ombudsman of the Washington Post.

And Bill Mitchell of the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in Florida, his work focuses on emerging economic models for news organizations.

We invited the publisher and editor of the Washington Post to join us, but they declined.

Geneva Overholser, explain what line the Post was close to crossing, enough that it canceled these gatherings?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER, University of Southern California: Well, to me, it’s important to remember that, amidst all the changes going on in journalism, one thing that professional journalists can still offer us is access to people in power.

And what makes this particularly unsavory, Jeff, in my view, is that the Post appeared to be willing to sell that access, and they were sort of using the journalists as lure, and it was kind of a defanged version of journalists, even, because the copy said that the conversation would be spirited, but not confrontational, which I think is quite undermining for the independence that is so important to journalists.

Paying for access raised red flags

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Bill Mitchell, the notion of private dinners bringing together Washington insiders, there's nothing new there. Access, lobbying, friendships between all of the above, nothing new there. So what are the red flags for you in this case?

BILL MITCHELL, The Poynter Institute: Well, I think among the red flags, as Geneva suggested, is the price, the notion of paying for access. Clearly, this is the beginning of what I think we're going to see a lot of in the months and years ahead as news organizations struggle to figure out ways of paying for news, news in the public interest, after all.

So I think what differentiated this from a kind of off-the-record culture that you see a lot of in Washington is the idea of a news organization charging a minimum of $25,000 to sponsor such an event.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Bill, it's...

BILL MITCHELL: But very little payoff in terms of the core audience of the news organization, after all.

JEFFREY BROWN: I wanted to ask you to continue. You started talking about the larger context. You say we're going to see more of this. That's because of the economic situation of so many news organizations. Is that what you mean?

BILL MITCHELL: That's true. I think the reality is that news organizations simply will be unable to sustain the level of journalism that they've produced over the years from advertising and circulation revenues. And so, as a practical matter, it's already happening. News organizations are really pushing hard for new sources of revenue, new ways of reducing costs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Geneva Overholser, what do you see in terms -- how widespread a practice is this, to reach out and have other events like this?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, I think events are going to become increasingly important. I think selling your journalists' access is not, I hope, a prevalent thing at all.

But, Jeff, I completely agree with what Bill said and what you're implying here, which is that, with the economic circumstances of newspapers so challenging, they're going to have to come up with new sources of income. But they're going to have to keep an eye on the public interest, because what distinguishes these terribly important news organizations like the Washington Post from the sort of maelstrom, you know, that's going on now in the information world is this credibility and reliability.

And if they lose sight of the public trust, then they'll be losing their best asset. Of course, if they can't make money, then we'll lose the Post, and that won't be in the public interest, too. It's a real challenge.

Communication within the newsroom

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so -- but continue there, Geneva. How do you draw a line between the business side and the editorial side? As you say, it happens for every news organization, including our own, when we think of taking on new sponsors or working with foundations. Where is the line? And how do you draw that line?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, I think you keep a number of things in mind. I think, for one thing, you have to be sure that all departments in the newspaper are talking to one another, which, of course, is not true in the old days when we had the so-called wall.

But here, oddly enough, that's part of what fell down. It seems that the communication among marketing and the newsroom and the publisher's office went afoul, or at least that's part of what Katharine Weymouth has said, and it sounds like that from the editor, as well.

Another is that you really have to figure out, what are the old rules that you can let go without thinking of the principles? And selling your access to your journalists is a principal that I don't think anyone should give up.

And the third one is to be very transparent about everything you're doing. I mean, when Politico did the coverage of this story, it became clear it was not anything the Post could have been comfortable being open and transparent about.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bill -- go ahead.

BILL MITCHELL: Let me just underscore what Geneva said in terms of being willing to rethink old rules and practices. Realistically, we have to do that. But at the same time, we have to hang tough with the really important core principles. And I think those principles have to apply to the business side as well as the news side of news organizations.

To his credit, the executive editor of the Post argued that, in this case, they had laid out specific parameters. In the end, they weren't followed, and there was a massive screw-up within the organization.

But I think the core principles of telling as much of the truth as possible, remaining as independent as possible, and minimizing harm to as many stakeholders as possible is core. In this case, the Post fell down in all three. And the largest harm, of course, in this case was done to the Post itself.

Setting proper guidelines

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Bill Mitchell, some of the questions that were asked or addressed -- in this incident, for example, were the journalists in some way limited to what they could ask? Was there one sponsor or many? That seemed to be an issue for some people. Was the session off the record or on?

Are all of these things the kinds of questions you're talking about? I mean, are there rules about each one of those things?

BILL MITCHELL: I think there are more guidelines than there are rules. But I think it's pretty clear, if you're talking about getting at as much of the truth of any matter as possible, that you're not going to set a parameter that there will be no confrontational questions. Sometimes, in some circumstances, to get at the truth, you need to be confrontational.

So saying at the outset that there will be no confrontational questions sets a totally inappropriate setting for the involvement of a news organization.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Absolutely. That was one of the least appealing things.

But I do think it's important to remember that one reason we're all talking about this is that the Washington Post is a news organization with very strong integrity that we have been able to rely on over the years, not perfect, of course. None of us -- no news organization is perfect.

But they have owned up. They do seem to me to be confronting the challenges here, and the publisher has said it was a mistake. I think it's important to note that those were in the public interest, those steps.

New marketing strategies

JEFFREY BROWN: And she did, Geneva -- Ms. Weymouth, that is -- did say in her letter, "I do believe there is a legitimate way to hold such events," even as she was apologizing for this one. She thinks there are ways to do this and has now, I guess, asked internally for some guidelines on how to do that. But that would suggest that we're not -- this is not the end of this sort of thing. People are going to be looking for ways to raise new money.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Absolutely. We're going to have newspapers doing things that they would never have done in the past. And I think all of us who've ever edited newspapers are reminding ourselves of some of the rules we had.

"I would hate to have an ad on the front page." Well, you know, bring them on if they're going to pay for investigative reporting. But let them be not deceitful.

I mean, an ad on the front page that pays for investigative reporting, terrific. If it's tricked up to look like something else, like editorial content, not terrific.

It seems to me there are going to be two ethical underpinnings from here on out that we're going to have to rely on: Is this in the public interest? Does it serve the public good? And transparency. Be completely honest about what we're doing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Brief last word for you, Bill Mitchell. Does that sound like the two keys to you?

BILL MITCHELL: They do. I would add only one other beyond transparency, and that's accountable. We need to let readers and viewers know what we're doing, and then we need to be able to justify what we've done.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Bill Mitchell and Geneva Overholser, thank you both very much.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Thank you.

BILL MITCHELL: Thank you.