Dan Kennedy

A tawdry scheme to sell access to journalists tarnishes the reputation of one of America’s great newspapers.

    Perhaps the most shocking thing about Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth’s misbegotten plan to sell access to her journalists at off-the-record dinners in her own home is that so many found it so shocking.

    Politico broke the news last Thursday [Jul 2 09], on the cusp of the long Fourth of July weekend, with the death of Michael Jackson still dominating television and Sarah Palin’s bizarro news conference yet to come. Almost immediately the Post pulled back, explaining it away as a business-side mistake. And that, one imagined, would have been that.

    But the story continued to grow. On Sunday, the Post published a letter to readers from Weymouth that begin with the inevitable "I want to apologize". On Monday, Geneva Overholser, head of the journalism programme at the University of Southern California and, not insignificantly, a former Post ombudsman, popped up on PBS’s NewsHour to say how "unsavory" she found it. And on Tuesday, the Post published yet another story on the subject, this one reporting that an internal investigation had been launched.

    Well, round up the usual suspects.

    At a time when the news business is under siege and public distrust of the media remains at disturbingly high levels, it’s encouraging that we are still capable of being appalled when we’re afforded an unappetisingly close-up look at the nexus of power, media and money that so dominates the US political system.

    But it’s not as though we should be surprised by what happened ñ or, rather, by what almost happened. As Jonah Goldberg observed in the Los Angeles Times, "these shocked media outlets are acting like erotic masseuses scandalized by the whorehouse next door."

    Let’s back up for a moment. The scheme exposed by Politico was what disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich might recognise as "pay for play". For $25,000 apiece, lobbyists and executives of special-interest organisations could sponsor a "salon" in Weymouth’s home at which they would have off-the-record access to White House officials, members of Congress, and Post senior editors and reporters.

    The cozy arrangement was outlined in a flier that an outraged health-care lobbyist (imagine that) provided to Politico. The Post even promised a volume discount of 11 salons for just $250,000.

    Immediately the Post’s executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, said he knew nothing about the specifics and that his troops would not participate. The paper’s ombudsman, Andy Alexander, called it "a public relations disaster." And Weymouth called off the salon, saying the flier misrepresented what she had in mind. (It is not clear what she had in mind.)

    Of course, such intimate get-togethers are nothing new. The Post’s offense was to get caught openly flogging the crass element of commerce. In a particularly withering commentary, New York Times media columnist David Carr compared Weymouth’s proposed salons with those of her legendary grandmother, the late Post publisher Katharine Graham.

    "The difference?" wrote Carr. "Mrs Graham bestowed legitimacy (Richard M Nixon never made the cut, even as president). Ms Weymouth decided to sell it, with her paper’s editorial integrity apparently thrown in as a parting gift."

    The trouble is, even pay-for-play is not all that unusual among media organizations. So it didn’t take long for TPM Muckraker to reveal that the Atlantic, a low-profile though influential public-policy magazine, had held about 100 similar events since 2003, sponsored by corporations such as General Electric, Microsoft and the insurance company Allstate.

    That, in turn, drew a defense from Atlantic owner David Bradley – and a biting essay by Slate’s Jack Shafer, who wrote that the practice of holding such off-the-record gatherings "corrupts the business of journalism in deep, fundamental ways."

    "The erection of such salons," Shafer added, "says this to corporations and public officials: You owe your candor not to the public but to one another, and journalistic organizations such as the Atlantic and the Washington Post will gladly pocket the cash to help you keep your ‘secrets’." (Slate is owned by the Washington Post Company, though Shafer certainly didn’t seem to hold back.)

    The whole idea of journalism is to serve as an independent check on power. Outsiders ranging from mid-century rabble-rousers like George Seldes and IF Stone to the bloggers of today have railed against access as a compromise and, ultimately, a corruption of that independence.

    When properly used, though, access is a tool that institutions like the Post can use to expose the inner workings of government in ways that outsiders, for all their virtues, rarely can.

    Maybe that’s why the Post’s initial efforts at damage control proved so inadequate. Over the decades, the Post has used its access for the public good, bringing to light such important stories as Watergate, the mistreatment of veterans at Walter Reed Hospital and the existence of secret, overseas prisons operated by the US government.

    For Katharine Graham’s granddaughter to try to sell that precious commodity as though it were just another supermarket ad is tawdry, but it’s worse than that. It raises the spectre that Weymouth fails to appreciate the legacy she inherited and its importance as an institution.

    Weymouth may not have understood that last week, but early indications are that she gets it now. It’s just too bad that her growing pains as a publisher have to give the rest of us such an acute case of indigestion.



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