Washington Post Cancels “Pay-to-Play” Lobbyist Dinners

Yesterday was a tough day for the corporate communications department at The Washington Post. A little after 8:00 a.m., POLITICO reported that The Post was asking lobbyists to underwrite the costs of off-the-record “salons” at the home of Post publisher, Katharine Weymouth. The day went downhill from there.

Katharine Weymouth, Publisher of The Washington Post. Image Credit: James Thresher, The Washington Post

Katharine Weymouth, Publisher of The Washington Post. Image Credit: James Thresher, The Washington Post

Dubbed “pay-for-chat” by The New York Times, the “salons” were billed to lobbyists on Capitol Hill as an opportunity to interact with Obama administration officials and Members of Congress who would have a leading role in the upcoming debate on reform of the nation’s health care system. Lobbyists could sponsor a single event for $25,000 or they could underwrite the cost of the series of 11 events at Weymouth’s home for $250,000. Obama administration officials and Members of Congress invited to the first “salon” on July 21, denied knowing that The Post was soliciting financial support from lobbyists to finance it.

The events were promoted with brochures being distributed to lobbyists on K Street and Capitol Hill. The organizers’ intent was pretty clear from the brochure copy as described by Howard Kurtz in today’s Post:

“Bring your organization’s CEO or executive director literally to the table. Interact with key Obama Administration and Congressional leaders . . . Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No. The relaxed setting in the home of Katharine Weymouth assures it.” The dinner, it said, would involve “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.”

For its part, The Post’s management team worked quickly to contain the damage to the paper’s reputation, but perhaps it didn’t act as quickly or as decisively as events warranted.

Consider this time line of events:

8:04 a.m. POLITICO posts the original story.

8:31 a.m. POLITICO announces the story via Twitter.

By 10:27 a.m. POLITICO  Fishbowl DC had posted a statement from The Washington Post’s director of corporate communications Kris Coratti. Coratti didn’t categorically rule out the possibility that the events wouldn’t be resurrected.  Charles Kaiser, a former Newsweek and New York Times alum now with the Sidney Hillman Foundation, said it amounted to what famous Postie Bob Woodward said was a “non-denial denial”. The statement read:

The flier circulated this morning came out of a business division for conferences and events, and the newsroom was unaware of such communication. It went out before it was properly vetted, and this draft does not represent what the company’s vision for these dinners are, which is meant to be an independent, policy-oriented event for newsmakers.

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. [Emphasis added.]

On his blog, “Full Court Press”, Kaiser relayed an telling conversation he had with Coratti about the statement.

FCP (Full Court Press) pointed out to the Post spokeswoman that unless the company repudiated this idea altogether by the end of the day, the company’s brand would be dead.

“I don’t appreciate that kind of talk,” said Kris Coratti, director of communications for Washington Post Media.

“You shouldn’t appreciate it,” FCP replied.

At 10:33 a.m., two and a half hours after the story broke and after Coratti had issued a statement to media, The Post’s Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli emailed employees, saying in part that:

We will not participate in events where promises are made that in exchange for money The Post will offer access to newsroom personnel or will refrain from confrontational questioning. Our independence from advertisers or sponsors is inviolable. [Emphasis added.]

In his email, Brauchli stopped short of announcing that he would be cancelling the “salons”.

By 1:10 p.m., The New York Times was reporting that the “salons” were cancelled.

By 2:45 p.m., Ms. Weymouth, who was out of town on vacation, emailed employees, almost 7 hours after the story broke, to formally announce the cancellation of the “salons”, saying in part that:

We were planning to do a series of dinners and had requested newsroom participation but with parameters such that we did not in any way compromise our integrity. Sponsorship of events, like advertising in the newspaper, must be at arm’s length and cannot imply control over the content or access to our journalists.

By 3:00 p.m., The WashingtonPost.com had posted several news stories describing the matter, including a blog post by Andrew Alexander, the paper’s ombudsman, who described the “salons” as, “pretty close to a public relations disaster”. (I’m not certain, but I believe from my memory that the first of these stories appeared on WashingtonPost.com before employees received either email from Brauchli or Weymouth.)

To say the least, I’m underwhelmed by the reaction of The Washington Post’s management team. As a PR friend of mine wrote on her Facebook page of our reporter friends at the paper: “It is such a tragedy for the overworked, talented and honorable reporters in that newsroom.”

That’s the part that makes me so angry;  the reporters at the paper did absolutely nothing to deserve this. Understandably, reporters in the newsroom were “furious”, “appalled” and in a state of “astonishment” with news of these events. (Their anger has to have been compounded by the fact that they were left to learn about their employer’s screw up from their competitors before their own management communicated with them. What’s worse, is The Post management chose to communicate with media first, before Post employees.)

No doubt, yesterday was a brand-damaging day for my favorite newspaper. Part of the reason I love The Post is not just because I’ve lived in Washington for more than 20 years, but because of the role this paper has played in the life of our city and indeed, our nation.

If you want to understand more about the importance of this paper, check out “Personal History” by the late publisher of The Post, Katharine Graham. Published in 1997, just a few years before her death in 2001, the book is Mrs. Graham’s story, not just of her life, but of her newspaper and her city — both of which she loved dearly. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

When her father, Eugene Meyer, purchased The Post at auction in 1933, Mrs. Graham wrote that many observers doubted whether a morning paper could make it in Washington. Mr. Meyer said at the time,

“The Capital of this great nation deserves a good paper. I believe in the American people. They can be relied on to do the right thing when they know the facts. I am going to give them the unbiased truth. When an idea is right, nothing can stop it.”

Part of me has to wonder what Mrs. Graham would have to say to about this turn of events under the leadership of her granddaughter.


One response to “Washington Post Cancels “Pay-to-Play” Lobbyist Dinners

  1. Pingback: Washington Post Publisher Apologizes to Readers, not Employees « Dilbert is Funny for a Reason

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