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July 02, 2009

Washington Post's pay-to-play flyer leaked

The Washington Post tried to sell access to its health care reporting staff, senior managers and even Obama administration officials.

The scheme was so brazen that it shocked the conscience of a health care lobbyist (!), prompting said lobbyist to leak a promotional flier to Politico. (The series was canceled after the story broke.)

Officially, the Post was offering lobbyists and CEOs a chance to sponsor an off-the-record dinner "salons" where they could interact with the aforementioned bigwigs in an a non-confrontational environment:

The flier says: “Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No. The relaxed setting in the home of Katharine Weymouth assures it. What is guaranteed is a collegial evening, with Obama administration officials, Congress members, business leaders, advocacy leaders and other select minds typically on the guest list of 20 or less. … 

“Offered at $25,000 per sponsor, per Salon. Maximum of two sponsors per Salon. Underwriters’ CEO or Executive Director participates in the discussion. Underwriters appreciatively acknowledged in printed invitations and at the dinner. Annual series sponsorship of 11 Salons offered at $250,000 … Hosts and Discussion Leaders ... Health-care reporting and editorial staff members of The Washington Post ... An exclusive opportunity to participate in the health-care reform debate among the select few who will actually get it done. ... A Washington Post Salon ... July 21, 2009 6:30 p.m. ... [Politico]

The post's executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, claimed to be appalled and the flier:

"As written, the newsroom could not participate in an event like this. We do believe there is an opportunity to have a conferences and events business, and that The Post should be leading these conversations in Washington, big or small, while maintaining journalistic integrity. The newsroom will participate where appropriate." 

In his e-mail to the newsroom, labeled "Newsroom Independence," Brauchli wrote: "Colleagues, A flyer was distributed this week offering an 'underwriting opportunity' for a dinner on health-care reform, in which the news department had been asked to participate. The language in the flyer and the description of the event preclude our participation. [Politico]

The Post is spinning this story as a case of an overzealous marketing team promising things they should have known the paper would never deliver.

But Brauchli said that the newsroom wouldn't participate because of how the event was described in the flier, not because he's opposed to the paper pimping our his reporters to lobbyists in general.

Sadly, there's nothing unusual about lobbyists buying access to decision-makers and reporters by underwriting events under the auspices of news organizations.

In fact, it's such an entrenched racket that an entire think tank/industrial complex has sprung up to facilitate this kind of elite schmoozing disguised as journalism or scholarship.

Investigative journalist Ken Silverstein went undercover to expose the seediest aspects of international lobbying in his book Turkmeniscam. He shopped for lobbyists in DC posing as an agent of Turkmenistan, a particularly nasty Stalinist dictatorship in central Asia. For an extra dose of sketchiness, he also implied that he mixed up with mobsters. Lobbyists promised Ken they could custom-craft a Turkmenistan-friendly panel and get it sponsored by a respected publication, for a price.

No wonder the Post canned Dan Froomkin, champion of accountability journalism.

It's ironic that publications like the Washington Independent have been denied press passes on Capitol Hill on the grounds that they are non-profit news outlets. The official line is that non-profit news outlets aren't eligible because they might be secretly subsidized by lobbyists. Whereas, if you make a half-assed effort to turn a profit by selling access, you're a legitimate news organization. God bless America!


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The event was canceled after the scandal broke, but I guess that there will be similar events advertised in a low-key way.

The Obama officials who go to events like this are probably looking to make contacts so that they can become lobbyists.

The members of Congress are probably looking for donations to their campaigns, leadership PACs, and party committees.

If the maximum donation to any of the above were $100 instead of up to $30,400 (to the DNC, RNC, DSCC, etc.), then members of Congress would have no interest in going to an event in which the main activity is talking to lobbyists.

Eric, if maximum donations were capped at $100, politicians would have to get public funds. They'd have to worry more about votes and less about money. In short, the entire basis of American democracy would crumble.

I am really beginning to hate my country. I have fought in 2 wars for my country, but I really, really am starting to hate it and what it really is.

Sweet. Alls I gotta do is put "Spirited, yes. Confrontational, no." on my business card (instead of "That dog you met that time") and start charging people tens of thousands of dollars to have coffee with me.

Then I'll finally be Legitimate Media.

Professional Journalism™ -- gotta love it!

Katharine Weymouth writes apology to Washington Post readers, but doesn't say that the Washington Post won't charge lobbyists for access to politicians in the future.

Her half-baked apology doesn't even include the word "lobbyists."
"From the outset, we laid down firm parameters to ensure that these events would be consistent with The Post's values. If the events were to be sponsored by other companies, everything would be at arm's length -- sponsors would have no control over the content of the discussions, and no special access to our journalists."

emptywheel responds:

So this is how the WaPo's publisher believes she can promise "unbiased" news. She swears that her journalists will get to publish what goes on at the Pay2Play soirees. She continues to make the empty promise that sponsors won't get to control the content of discussions (as if Weymouth will really shut them up when they start attacking the public option).

But she doesn't, ultimately, back off the idea of selling lobbyists access to key lawmakers in Weymouth's own living room.

From the AP:
Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said the small-scale dinners were a mistake.

"I think there is a legitimate debate right now about whether we should be doing this at all. We thought there was a way to do so consistent with our journalistic values, but in light of this experience, it is clear that this was a mistake,"

Weymouth said in an accompanying Post article that the July 21 dinner was hastily planned, and a marketing employee sent the flier without approval. She and Brauchli said in the article that the newspaper had been discussing a new business including dinners, seminars and conferences.

Maybe the marketing person didn't ask for approval of the wording of the invitations.

But he or she didn't decide to invite lobbyists to the home of "Katharine Weymouth Publisher and CEO, The Washington Post" without approval.

I think there is a legitimate debate right now about whether we should be doing this at all.

Wait, what's the legitimate argument for continuing to do this?

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