Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

The Washington Post: RIP

The Washington Post died today.  It was five months short of its 132nd birthday.

News of the demise of the once-great news gathering organization came in a story by Mike Allen at Politico.com, which reported that Post publisher Katharine Weymouth has decided to solicit payoffs of between $25,000 and $250,000 from Washington lobbyists, in return for one or more private dinners in her home, where lucky diners will receive a chance for “your organization’s CEO” to interact with “Health-care reporting and editorial staff members of The Washington Post” and “key Obama administration and congressional leaders …”

The decision by the Post’s publisher to sell access to government officials was the latest–and, by far, the most horrific–in a series of disastrous decisions in the last two weeks which, taken together, have destroyed what was once one of the proudest brands in American journalism.

As news of the Politico story raced across the Internet this morning, former and present news executives inside and outside The Washington Post Company reacted with stunned horror.  As Allen put it in his Politico story, “The offer ­ which essentially turns a news organization into a facilitator for private lobbyist-official encounters ­ is a new sign of the lengths to which news organizations will go to find revenue at a time when most newspapers are struggling for survival.”

Arthur Gelb, the legendary former managing editor of The New York Times, declared, “Say It Ain’t So, Katharine. Where are the principles set by your grandmother and Ben Bradlee that had for so long imbued the Post? How can your reporters and editors we so admire and respect sit on their hands while this degradation evolves?”

The Post issued a statement which perfectly fits what Washington Post legend Bob Woodward once defined during Watergate as a “non-denial denial”:
 

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.”
 

FCP 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.  But the failure to repudiate this idea will be fatal:

“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. …”

Later in the day, Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli made this stab at damage control:
 

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.

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.

There is a long tradition of news organizations hosting conferences and events, and we believe The Post, including the newsroom, can do these things in ways that are consistent with our values.

Marcus

Over at the Dow Jones-owned site All Things Digital, Peter Kafka offered the swiftest and most idiotic reaction to the news, ignoring the fact that there might be any significant difference between paid and unpaid dinner parties:

But let me play devil’s advocate: What exactly would be so wrong about getting the paper’s reporters or editors to to participate in one of these?

This certainly wouldn’t be the first time that the Post has been at the nexus of power, money and influence ­ in fact, Weymouth’s grandmother, Katharine Graham, was famous for hosting gatherings much like these at her house. And publications of all stripes ­ including this one, as well as Dow Jones, which owns this site ­ frequently charge fees to attend networking events where their editorial staff participates.

In a chat today on washingtonpost.com, Post Congressional reporter Paul Kane cited Brauchli’s memo as proof that the newsroom would not participate in these confabs–even though the statement of the company’s corporate spokeswoman directly contradicted that. And even if newsroom staffers are excluded from these dinners, the idea that the paper’s publisher would be selling this kind of access remains far, far, far beyond the pale.

Early indications of the collapse of judgement at the Washington news organization included the decision to allow Glenn Beck to host a chat at washingtpost.com-–a scant two weeks before Beck hosted certifiably-maniacal Michael Scheuer on his own program, so that Scheuer could strongly advocate a massive new terrorist attack on the United States by Osama Bin Laden.

Next came the firing of Dan Froomkin, the best and most original reporter on the Post’s website–presumably because Froomkin wrote so many accurate stories pointing up the inadequacies of the national staff of the Post.

But both of those events paled next to this morning’s news, which was leaked to Politico by a healthcare lobbyist. In a piece of remarkable understatement, Mike Allen wrote, “it’s a turn of the times that a lobbyist is scolding The Washington Post for its ethical practices.”

For the first one hundred years of its existence, the Post was a respectable but unremarkable newspaper. All that began to change when Katharine Weymouth’s grandmother, Katharine Graham, chose Ben Bradlee to lead the paper in 1968. During the next twenty-three years, by expanding the paper’s national staff, opening many new bureaus abroad, inventing the Style section and hiring some of the finest reporters in America, Bradlee gave The New York Times the first serious competition it had received from a general-interest newspaper since the death of the New York Herald Tribune.

The paper’s most celebrated period came when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did more than anyone else to unravel the Watergate scandal during the administration of Richard Nixon. Most famously, when Bernstein called former Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell to read him one of his stories, Mitchell exploded, “All that crap, you’re putting it in the paper? It’s all been denied. Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published. Good Christ! That’s the most sickening thing I ever heard.”

Graham’s granddaughter, Katharine Weymouth, was widely admired within The Washington Post Company as she climbed up the corporate ladder before finally succeeding her uncle Donald Graham as the paper’s publisher. But the extraordinary economic pressures faced by every American newspaper as their traditional business model has collapsed has now led to a comparable collapse in corporate judgment. When historians look back at this event, they will note it as the beginning of the end of newspapers as we have known them.

[Special thanks to FCP contributors DEK & JWS]

 

UPDATE: The Post Caves In–To Sanity

Reacting to the uproar, Katharine Weymouth announced early this afternoon that plans for the dinners at her house had been cancelled.  Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz reported that   “Weymouth knew of the plans to host small dinners at her home and to charge lobbying and trade organizations for participation. But, one of the executives said, she believed that there would be multiple sponsors, to minimize any appearance of charging for access, and that the newsroom would be in charge of the scope and content of any dinners in which Post reporters and editors participated.”   http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/02/AR2009070201563.html