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Clear it with SidneyHow our blog got its name >

 
Notes on journalism for the common good
by Lindsay Beyerstein

How our blog got its name

Sidney Hillman was a powerful national figure during the Great Depression, a key supporter of the New Deal, and a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

When the rumor spread that President Roosevelt ordered his party leaders to “clear it with Sidney” before announcing Harry S. Truman as his 1944 running mate, conservative critics turned on the phrase, trumpeting it as proof that the president was under the thumb of “Big Labor.”

Over the years, the phrase lost its sting and became a testament to Hillman's influence.

It's hard to imagine a labor leader wielding that kind clout today, but we like the idea—and we hope Sidney would give thumbs up to our blog.

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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

Comments

Thank you.

This is exactly what you get when you put an internet oriented individual in charge of a print journal - no idea of what real journalism is about.

A closer reader than "Jay" would have noticed that I attributed the Post's main problem to the fact that "their traditional business model has collapsed."

Charles Kaiser

Okay, I'll give you ten-to-one odds that this doesn't kill the Post. You can even make up the definition of "kill" yourself. This won't kill it. You people don't get it. The red ink at the Post is all from a shifting technology landscape. It's not from firing Froomkin or from publishing whatever conservative DailyKos told you it's fashionable to hate this week (btw, how are you people completely oblivious to the incessant criticism the paper faces from the right for being way too leftist. Do you not read Howard Kurtz's chats? Or does the cognitive dissonance of the conservative criticism cause your pea brains to shut down?) So anyways, name the terms. Name any possible metric which in five years will point to SalonGate being anything other than a blip, forgotten by everyone except the sad obsessives (on the right and the left) who somehow think a "responsible" media is one that parrots their views (name a single viewpoint that has not been represented in the paper) and silences those who disagree (you all have plenty of examples of who needs to be silenced). Get a grip.

Why all the anguish and outrage over WaPo publisher Weymouth offering her house as a lounge for cozy intimacies between corporate potentates and spangled stars of the political harem? But there's no equal ire over the johns from the CEO suites paying premium fees for entrance to the brothel. Nor over the hookers from the Hill and the White House compliantly presenting themselves for service when summoned by the madame. Apparently it's just assumed that the business elite buy access and that the representatives of the people are for sale. This commerce is so common that nobody notices or remarks upon it. Only when the arrangement is openly consummated in a media bordello does scandal ensue.

How anyone can express sincere shock and dismay at The Post's selling its soul is beyond me. For more than 8 years the daily has regularly genuflected before wealth, power and influence - whether echoing false Administration alarums about Saddam's non-existant WMDs, Admin predictions of a quick, inexpensive war leading to a flourishing, new democracy in the Middle East, etc. For ever since the USA was caught "waterboarding" detainees - a practice the mainstream media called "torture" when the Japanese, the Chinese or the Koreans did it to Americans - The Post, and other "liberal" outlets, have sedulously avoided calling our waterboarding "torture." It's pretty clear that The Post no longer speaks truth to power; it only speaks consolingly to power. So how could anyone be surprised to find it trying to cash in - selling deep-pocketed health care lobbyists access to elected representatives and the influential reporters who write about health care? The next thing you'll hear people affecting to be surprised about is that neither our representatives nor our "liberal" media outlets find the health care needs of the poor a topic worth exploring.

I am beyond tears at the demise of the WaPo. I am diarrhetic about it.

Much too much.

Sad, when one thinks of all the ink used to represent political statements on the part of political candidates running for elective office, that there should be an end to all of this lobbying. The Washington Post just closed the door on having any future say in this matter, as it's obvious they were willing to be a major participant themselves. No wonder certain politicians were berated, and given a rough time during the election for offering their opinion, that the government of the day was controlled by nothing more than a group of high priced lobbyists.

I read WaPo almost every day and still find it's foreign reporting to be excellent, even as I often cringe at the op-ed page, and can't abide its stable of conservative and out-of-touch columnists. But I'm not ready to give up on the entire newspaper industry or even to agree that WaPo is dead. The implications of that are too disturbing. Taken as a whole, it's a still a decent newspaper compared with many other big city dailies around the country, with NYT happily in a class by itself. What I'd like to know more about is what's behind the pattern of bone-headed decisions of recent years. There's lots of explaining to do with the inexplicable firing of Froomkin. the cramped and unillumined Hiatt, and its taste for non-mainstream, ideological commentary that is out of sync with these pragmatic times. Has the Washington Times pulled them to the right? Is the senior editing and managerial staff incompetent? What are the reasons for the lapses in good judgement and failure to live up to better standards of fairness and common sense?

It is well known that WAPO and NYTMS are both infiltrated by CIA and others. Read William Blum's "Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II" or one of the many books on politics written for Noam Chomsky. I wish you would all stop being so nieve.

We have, on the same day, a guest editorial by John Bolton doing the usual WaPo Neocon raving an Israeli airstrike on Israel. Is it just me, or is the WaPo on a parallel self-destruction track with Mark Sanford?

Kurtz article said they were canceled but reading the Ombudsman, it sounds like they only canceled the first one. The last sentence: Beyond canceling the July 21 gathering, Weymouth said "we will not hold salon dinners involving the newsroom." I also thought this was an interesting rationalization from Kurtz' article: 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.

If any reader thinks that the whiff of a death notice in the title of this post is hyperbolic, and that the Post will weather this storm because after all, they've shelved and repudiated the idea behind the dinners, I ask you to consider this: What if the whistleblowing lobbyist (fancy that phrase!) hadn't leaked the memo to Politico? The dinners would have gone right ahead, in some form or fashion.

I had tolerated the policy changes at the Post for decades, believing it was still a good paper, on par with NY, Chicago and LA. By 2004, I had had my fill of their regurgitation of W.H. press releases and no real reporting. I discontinued the weekly deliver and held on to Sunday for Style, Travel, Comics, etc. About 3 months ago, after the demise of most of the useful Sunday supplements I gave up the paper all together and have not missed it for a second. This is just the frosting on the cake. However, with the passing of the Fourth Estate we are completely at the mercy of the forces of greed and corruption that rule government, financial institution, insurance, pharmaceuticals and everything else. Anarchy might be the logical next step.

The idea that Weymouth "climbed up the corporate ladder before finally succeeding her uncle Donald Graham as the paper’s publisher" is laughable. She worked in the counsel's office and then headed up advertising for the online edition, but lacked any training in journalism, editing, or managing the content or "mission" side of a major publication. She was woefully unprepared to take the helm.

If Warren Buffett doesn't step in and clean up the mess the Grahams/Weymouths have made, he can watch his investment in WPO go down the toilet. And Warren does not have a record of flushing things. If we see him selling out his stake in WPO, we'll know they've refused to correct things and it's the end. And I say that as a Post home delivery subscriber since 1969. Still am, but truth is, I look to my favorite internet sites for news before I read the Post. I'd be hard-pressed to say why I'm still getting delivery. Morbid curiosity as to how fast its demise will be. Style, a connection with the local news and arts, the international news to some extent, curiosity as to which buffoon is embarrassing him/herself on the opinion pages -- as for national political news, forget it. Just not credible.

If any reader thinks that the whiff of a death notice in the title of this post is hyperbolic, and that the Post will weather this storm because after all, they've shelved and repudiated the idea behind the dinners, I ask you to consider this: What if the whistleblowing lobbyist (fancy that phrase!) hadn't leaked the memo to Politico? The dinner's would have gone right ahead, in some form or fashion.

right?

It is a mistake to think that enterprises such as the Washington Post are any longer in the business of communicating information to the general public - but it's our mistake, and one which the Post apparently still wants us to keep making, with their pretense that they're going to drop this latest influence-peddling scheme. It is only when their (meant to be) private conversations with their true audience, the monied or ruling class (pretty much the same thing), are mistakenly broadcast that they actually have to worry publicly about what the rest of us may think. Don't they know we can hear them? Actually, they don't. And before too much longer, I expect, they won't even act like they care when we do. They weren't talking to us, anyway.

This is typical Washington beltway media group think... the news at WAPO is 'for sale'... only $25,000 per column inch. Let the bidding begin! Conclusion: the sooner the beltway media disappear, the better we'll ALL be.

PF's post is right on target. The WP was rife with racism and conflicts of interest at the highest levels when I worked there in the late 1960s and early 70s. I always approached reporting as a calling and I was stunned at the crap that Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee tolerated. There is a backstory to the Post's Watergate coverage that has never been touched; specifically Bradlee's connections and friendship with CIA director Richard Helms (I inadvertently learned about that connection from Helms step-daughter who Bradlee personally hired when there was a hiring freeze at the paper). As for Woodward, I made his acqaintance during his first tenure at the WP; he was fresh out of the Navy and happened to tell me he had been an Admiral's aide. I smelled he was some kind of intelligence officer---and that was more fully revealed when he wrote about how he first met Mark Felt. (The few books that have asserted Watergate was really a CIA coup I think were on to something). Moreover there were former colleagues who whispered about the CIA's access to the WP foreign staff. As for racism, Bradlee ran a damn plantation. At it's worst, Bradlee's newsroom actually fostered a " vigilante bunch" that plotted to punish a black staffer who dared to get involved with the estranged wife of one of the paper's longtime reporters. Like the rest of the industry, the WP is suffering a retribution for a multitude of sins---many of which remain hidden because there is no legitimate watchdog over the industry. Unchecked power invariably invites retribution. I'm enjoying every minute of it. My gut tells me there is more to come.

The PentaPost has been in the pocket of the Reichwing for years. They were also facilitators in the 2000 and 2004 GOP coup d'etats. Cheers, Lori R. Price Managing Editor Citizens For Legitimate Government http://www.legitgov.org/

Right on, Mark !

Anyone believe in coincidences: Hiatt hiring otherwise unemployable rightwing hacks; Fromkin fired; Lally Weymouth selling busuiness executives and lobbyists access to Post staff ! What next? Allowing businesses and lobbyists to write their own articles for publication! Forgot, that has already been done by Post stenographers since the days of Sue Schmidt.

personifies the Post's decline. The investigative reporter of Watergate becomes the stenographer of the Bush Administration. Worse, to the extent he has any valuable information or insight at all, he saves it for his books, assuring that the public benefits of his journalism take a back seat to his own personal profit.

... about the way politics works inside the Beltway. The Post should be decrying and exposing this sort of behavior, not reinforcing it. But then again, they just fired their most unique voice, Dan Froomkin, in the same year that editorial page editor-hack Fred Hiatt brings aboard neocon William Kristol, in spite of his clearly disastrous year on the New York Times op-ed page. Sadly, like many things these days in America, The Post's best days are long behind it.

The Post has been effectively an organ of US intelligence agencies for more than 45 years, documented way back in 1977 by Carl Bernstein in Rolling Stone. According to Bernstein: "When Newsweek was purchased by the Washington Post Company, publisher Philip L. Graham was informed by Agency officials that the CIA occasionally used the magazine for cover purposes, according to CIA sources. 'It was widely known that Phil Graham was somebody you could get help from,' said a former deputy director of the Agency. 'Frank Wisner dealt with him.' Wisner, deputy director of the CIA from 1950 until shortly before his suicide in 1965, was the Agency's premier orchestrator of 'black' operations, including many in which journalists were involved. Wisner liked to boast of his 'mighty Wurlitzer,' a wondrous propaganda instrument he built, and played, with help from the press. Phil Graham was probably Wisner's closest friend. But Graham, who committed suicide in 1963, apparently knew little of the specifics of any cover arrangements with Newsweek, CIA sources said." So after years of covering up government malfeasance, generating war propaganda, and covering up corporate crimes -- and serving as a mouthpiece for the Central Intelligence Agency -- it is The Post's own greed and blatant prostitution that does them in. This is not the worst thing the paper has ever done, but it's good to see them get what's been coming to them for a long time.

Not surprising to see Ceci Connoly mentioned in the Politico piece, after the job she did earlier this week on Adam Greene being "...hard-pressed to articulate a substantive argument for the public plan..." One can imagine her lining up for a peice of the action at that dinner. WaPo's original member of the "Spice Girls".

Newspapers all over the country are getting hammered (or shuttered) today, and it only makes sense to pull out all the stops when your survival is on the line. I can see no reason why they should not sell their audiences to the highest bidder. It is sanctimonious and hypocritical to assert that WaPo have a greater responsibility than other newspapers, including the free ones that litter my driveway. This is not a descent into some moral netherworld, it is simply an artifact of a survival instinct and a changing media/business environment. WaPo are not immune to these factors. I give them credit for understanding their predicament sooner, rather than later (like GM), and taking the creative approach to revenue enhancement. You gotta sell your reputation while it's still good!

This is a really interesting counter-perspective, if that's even an acceptable phrase. Thanks for offering it.

Touche!

"When historians look back at this event, they will note it as the beginning of the end of newspapers as we have known them." That is a ridiculous statement. This may have been a colossal error in judgment, but the actual "beginning of the end" for newspapers was a little thing called the "internet." Let's not get carried away in this tide of righteous indignation.

Wrong. The beginning of the end came years ago with media consolidation.

So what does this mean, that they just won't be printing flyers up with their pricelist anymore? Restricting retail access to the back-channel, "not for attribution, natch" as a WaPo reporter might write?

and not ask yourself, what high-priced, "salon" conference did THAT come out of?

I met a man beside the firewall Who said: two vast and empty halls of stone Stand in the city. Near them, on the mall, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read, Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, Truthiness of mouth, which to pow’r gave head, And on the pedestal these words appear: "My name is WaPo, King of Mainstream Media: Look upon my works, ye Bloggers, and despair!" Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of those colossal wrecks, in troubled air The newsprint crumbles, rips, and blows away.

This is not fair use. Indeed, it is quite unfair. In fact, flagrant copyright infringement with prurient intent. You will be hearing from my attorneys.

I have watched an endless flow of newspaper types bash the trend of people switching to blogs to receive their news. One only needs to look at the two biggest stories of the past seven years, the war in Iraq and the financial meltdown, to understand why people no longer trust newspaper to supply them with accurate and timely news and analysis. Most papers have stood firmly in the corner of business and the entrenched Washington bureaucracy, providing them with an unfettered platform where their assertions go virtually unquestioned. Selling access to people with a financial interest instead of a public interest in policy is nothing new; it is just one more baby step in the long march of placing the media in the hands of monied special interest groups. I do not sit by the sick bed of the American newspaper dabbing my eyes. It is hard to feel any sympathy for an industry who continues to strike yet another nail in their own coffin.

Through deregulation, consolidation and subversion, America's journalists have become newsreaders and stenographers, investigative journalism has turned into "embedding" and "access", and "the press" has become "the media". One of America's strengths has always been our "Fourth Estate". But just as the Congress served at the pleasure of the President during the Bush Administration, media corporations have increasingly put profit and politics first and journalism last. They depict everything as a "he-said, she-said" fight where the lies of one side get equal consideration with the truths from the other side. Why should they care? The last thing they want to do is risk their bottom line when the right starts a boycott or a PR campaign against them! Better to simply play nice and keep getting those lucrative government contracts! Today's media conglomerates are not worthy of the First Amendment. They are money-making machines just like any other company. We would be fools even to expect them to do their jobs.

Pathetic

great post- the washington post has been going down hill for some time, but this terrible lack of judgement is the icing on the cake!

And hasn't Newsweek done them for quite a while? Other media cos. do it, perhaps not charging $25K but certainly charging hundreds or low thousands to attend. Isn't that what All Things D conference is all about? I'm not defending WaPo, but wonder if they are bearing brunt of outcry that many others in the industry deserve.

Not the same at all. Those events, such as All Things D, are advertised and widely known about and open to hundreds or thousands of people, anyone who pays a registration fee, not just the "sponsors." Also, they are not off-the-record. And the guests and attendees are from business, academia, NGOs, and government. The WaPo "salons" were not promoted as industry networking events. They were promoted to sell, and have the appearance of selling, access to high level administration officials. Off the record. (Which is certainly not transparent, is it?) The WaPo salon is lobbying by another name. And this influence peddling, helping big business, big unions, and big government get all cozy, is not unique to Ds or Rs. This type of corporatism is bad for the citizens of a free republic.

Thank you. These kinds of sponsored events are very common. Atlantic has done "salons" for quite awhile. This was badly-worded, overly-eager marketing language and successful spin on the part of Politico.

I can speak for Australian papers as I live here but I understand the hardships America is going through. We aren't as bad off yet but who's to say the tide won't turn here. Most people I am aware of like to access the paper on the way to work, as they are in labouring jobs & the like but the Us are more office job orientated & have access to the net. Those who don't have the net buy the paper for the lottery results or local functions, or maybe the obituary's. I can see the new trend in the TV industry & the way they utilise the Internet to advertise their programs & reap the financial income through the advertising. That just might be the thing that Rupert Murdoch should be looking at, instead of flogging a dead horse.

WaPo is like a chicken without a head - flapping its wings, running around the butcher yard, not knowing it's dead. It's over.

Let us not overlook the irony that the paper’s former managing editor just wrote a book on the baleful effects of lobbying on the culture of Washington…

 
 

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