WaPo ombud demolishes paper’s cover story on WaPimping
posted at 1:45 pm on July 11, 2009 by Ed Morrissey
The Washington Post tried to explain away its “salons”, which basically sold off-the-record access to the Post’s journalists and government officials for lobbyists, as a misunderstanding and mistaken marketing campaign by one of its executives. WaPo ombud Andrew Alexander demolishes the cover story that made Charles Pelton the fall guy, and clearly shows that both publisher Katharine Weymouth and executive editor Marcus Brauchli not only knew that the salons provoked serious ethics questions, their chosen fall guy raised them before producing the fliers that exposed the program (emphases mine, via Instapundit):
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. …
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.
So the entire notion that this was a result of a marketing group out of control was a lie. Weymouth and Brauchli both got warnings about the ethical problems of holding secret salons, including from Pelton, and approved them anyway.
That changes the entire character of the story. The Post, rather than admitting up front that the entire management structure owned this fiasco, essentially issued a series of misleading explanations intended to protect its journalistic credibility. Instead, they have completely destroyed it by involving Brauchli in half-truths and evasions when absolute honesty was required — and now we find out that several of their newsroom managers knew about the salons and failed to object, even as Pelton reminded them of the issues.
How does the Post salvage its credibility now?
Update: I should also express my admiration for Andrew Alexander, who set the record straight — an excellent job by this ombudsman in keeping the readers’ interests in mind. Too bad his management didn’t have the same idea.