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Washington Post Under Fire Over Pay-for-access Plan

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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    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.