Washington Post publisher apologizes for paid ‘salons’ plan
WASHINGTON — The Washington Post's publisher apologized to readers yesterday for a plan to charge business leaders and lobbyists for intimate dinner discussions with government officials and the newspaper's journalists.
On July 2, the Web site Politico reported on the fliers, which were sent to potential sponsors promoting a plan to charge $25,000 to sponsor one of a series of dinner parties that would include off-the-record conversations with Post journalists and access to Washington insiders. The newspaper announced the series was canceled later that day.
The Los Angeles Times reported on July 3 that invitations to attend the salons had been sent to lawmakers as personal e-mails from Publisher Katharine Weymouth’s office but did not include the fundraising flier.
“I want to apologize for a planned new venture that went off track and for any cause we may have given you to doubt our independence and integrity,” Weymouth said in a letter that appeared in the newspaper's op-ed section yesterday.
Weymouth said the flier wasn't approved by her or the newspaper's editors, and that it didn't accurately describe the plan for the small gatherings.
The flier advertised a “Washington Post salon” on health-care reform at Weymouth's home on July 21. The gathering would include 20 or fewer guests, including Obama administration officials, members of Congress, business leaders and lobbyists.
According to the flier, each of 11 salons would have one or two sponsors who would pay $25,000 to underwrite the event and invite guests.
The flier said participants were offered a chance to “build crucial relationships with Washington Post news executives in a neutral and informal setting.” It called the health-care salon an “off-the-record conversation.”
Weymouth's letter said the newspaper was planning dinners but including “firm parameters” that gave sponsors no control over content and no special access to its journalists. Reporters wouldn't be restricted from asking questions, she said.
“If the events were to be sponsored by other companies, everything would be at arm's length,” she said in the letter.
Critics of the program said the newspaper's promise of exclusivity for Washington insiders was at odds with the newspaper's mission to its readers.
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.
The First Amendment Center is an educational organization and cannot provide legal advice.
Ken Paulson is president of the First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University. He is also the former editor-in-chief of USA Today.
Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, also is senior vice president of the First Amendment Center, a center of the institute. He is a veteran journalist whose career has included work in newspapers, radio, television and online.
John Seigenthaler founded the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center in 1991 with the mission of creating national discussion, dialogue and debate about First Amendment rights and values.
Dr. Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute.. He writes and speaks extensively on religious liberty and religion in American public life.
David L. Hudson Jr. is an expert in First Amendment issues and a regular contributor to the First Amendment Center's website. Hudson teaches law and was a scholar at the First Amendment Center.