WaPo Ombud: Nothing to see here, move along

After a weekend of criticism, Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander has tried to calm the waters and restore the paper’s credibility.  Alexander agrees that the fliers described an event that crossed all ethical lines for news media, but says that his chats with the people involved show that the fliers didn’t describe what publisher Katharine Weymouth had in mind.  However, Alexander’s explanation of how the event unfolded doesn’t make a lot of sense:

A number of the questions focused on Charles Pelton, a key player in the controversy. A one-time newspaper journalist who started his own firm to stage meetings, Pelton was hired by The Post several months ago to create a new business that would offer Post-sponsored conferences, seminars and the now-canceled “salon” dinners at Weymouth’s home. He was responsible for distribution of the multicolor promotional flier soliciting sponsors. Weymouth and Brauchli both said they did not see before it was sent out, even though they were listed as “Hosts and Discussion Leaders.”

Many newsroom staffers wonder why Pelton is still employed. I posed the question to him by e-mail. “Best of luck with this,” he responded, referring me to his boss, Stephen P. Hills, the Post’s president and general manager. Hills declined to comment, saying that confidentiality needs to be respected in personnel matters.

Weymouth told me today that in addition to distributing the fliers, Pelton had sent e-mails under her name to potential guests for the “salon” dinners.

“They went through my e-mail,” she said of the guest invitations. “I was on vacation and I assumed the language of the invitations was fine and I didn’t need to review it.”

On the fliers, she said “I don’t usually review marketing materials, otherwise we wouldn’t get anything done here.”

It’s becoming clear that Charles Pelton will be the fall guy in this episode, but this explanation makes no sense at all.  When Weymouth tried trotting out the “I thought this was still in development” explanation this weekend, I pointed out that the flier advertised a salon scheduled for July 21st, not even three weeks away — and set in Weymouth’s home.  Pelton and Weymouth would have had to agree to the scheduling before putting it on a flier just to make sure Weymouth was available, and the tight time frame necessitated invitations, as well as sponsors and the marketing necessary to find them.

That brings us to the new twist from Alexander.  In order to make sure they had something to sell, the Post needed to send out invitations to the lobbyists and the government officials for the meet & greet.  Those invitations apparently came from Weymouth personally.  I say apparently because Weymouth admitted they came from her own e-mail address, but claims that Pelton sent them without her knowledge, and that more or less she didn’t bother to see what Pelton sent out under her name.  That’s an odd attitude for any CEO to take, but especially one in which by-lines are an important part of the culture.

Weymouth argues, as does Alexander, that Weymouth had no interest in seeing the marketing campaign for an effort in which she was intimately involved and that would bring hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorships to Post and Weymouth.  She was so disinterested that she gave her marketing group carte blanche not just to create invitations to her own lucrative parties, but also complete access to her e-mail.  Not only does that explanation fail to restore the Post’s credibility as a news organization, but it makes Weymouth look like an absentee CEO interested only in cashing her checks.

Why is Pelton still employed?  As long as he is, he has no reason to dispute this silly cover story.  It looks to me as if Weymouth can’t afford to let him out the door.

The Atlantic also holds these same kinds of closed-door, off-the-record salons between lobbyists and government officials for a fee, and they defended the practice yesterday:

Atlantic Media’s particular niche is hosting dinner conversations, focused on current events issues, where we succeed in bringing all sides of the issue to the table. In general, the dinners include two- to three-dozen guests drawn from a score of institutions – corporations, associations, NGOs, universities, think tanks, government, and other media companies – as well as individual authors and activists. The ambition, almost always realized, is to have all sides of an issue present – conservatives and liberals, conservative think tanks and liberal think tanks, corporations and consumer groups, all manner of associations and all manner of environmental, health advocacy and public interest groups. The art here is bringing disparate parties to table for a constructive conversation.

The larger number of our Atlantic Media dinners are sponsored, though I host some for my own interest and on my own account. …

Off-the-Record: The decision to convene our dinners off-the-record was made at the outset. In the vocabulary we used at that time, we were hoping to avoid the “canned remarks and rehearsed sound bites” that come with much public-policy discussion. My own view is that there is a great deal of constructive conversation that can take place only with the promise that no headline is being written. Everyone – maybe even especially journalists – relies on this confidence in his day-to-day work.

Having dinner parties with lobbyists and government officials present on your own dime isn’t a problem.  Getting money from sponsors for on-the-record conferences isn’t a problem, either.  Charging money to sponsors to get them connected with government officials for off-the-record talks is a big problem, for both the government officials and the media outlet pimping out for the lobbyists.  A pay-for-access scheme like this is something we’d expect the Atlantic and the Washington Post to report, not to set up as a profit center.