The Washington Post is accused of arranging for meetings between power brokers, lobbyists, and politicians, including Post reporters and editors for $25,000 to $250,000. These meetings are billed as off the record, non-confrontational access to “those powerful few” in the Beltway. Called “Salons,” the entire program is raising eyebrows in both the media and business areas.
This offer includes unique access to the “health care reporting and editorial staff” of the Washington Post.
The flier advertises:
Underwriting Opportunity: An evening with the right people can alter the debate,” says the one-page flier. “Underwrite and participate in this intimate and exclusive Washington Post Salon, an off-the-record dinner and discussion at the home of CEO and Publisher Katharine Weymouth … 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. 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. . . .
Washington Post Salons are extensions of The Washington Post brand of journalistic inquiry into the issues, a unique opportunity for stakeholders to hear and be heard,” the flier says. “At the core is a critical topic of our day. Dinner and a volley of ideas unfold in an evening of intelligent, news-driven and off-the-record conversation. … By bringing together those powerful few in business and policy-making who are forwarding, legislating and reporting on the issues, Washington Post Salons give life to the debate. Be at this nexus of business and policy with your underwriting of Washington Post Salons.
I have to agree with critics that this initiative raises some major questions of conflicts of interest as well as questions of basic judgment. Various questions are obvious, such as do these fees include a margin for profit or payments made to Washington Post staff? Since public interest organizations are likely to have less ability to pay $25,000, there is also a concern that the”powerful few” will include politicians and the well-healed lobbyists that they already love to socialize with. Now, however, it is the Post which will be organizing the meetings. Was there really a shortage of the “powerful few” getting together for off-the-record dinners?
Update: The Post has announced the termination of the Salon program, here. Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth said “Absolutely, I’m disappointed. This should never have happened. The fliers got out and weren’t vetted. They didn’t represent at all what we were attempting to do. We’re not going to do any dinners that would impugn the integrity of the newsroom.” There is little debate that it should not have happened, but there remains considerable question of how it could happen. This was not some unplanned dinner party among friends. This would have required some consultation and coordination from within the company.
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