First, Politico’s exposure of the Post’s sin:
For $25,000 to $250,000, The Washington Posthas offered lobbyists and association executives off-the-record, – access to “those powerful few”: Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and — at first — even the paper’s own reporters and editors.
The astonishing offer was detailed in a flier circulated Wednesday to a health care lobbyist, who provided it to a reporter because the lobbyist said he felt it was a conflict for the paper to charge for access to, as the flier says, its “health care reporting and editorial staff.
Then, in its own pages, the Post’s lightning-quick plea for absolution:
Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth today canceled plans for a series of policy dinners at her home after learning that marketing fliers offered lobbyists access to Obama administration officials, members of Congress and Post journalists in exchange for payments as high as $250,000.
“Absolutely, I’m disappointed,” Weymouth, the chief executive of Washington Post Media, said in an interview. “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.
The whole imbroglio raises a delicious mix of issues. First, it does seem clear that if the Post was selling off-the-record access to its reporting staff, that stinks. But at the other end of the spectrum, what’s wrong with newspapers being the conveners of sessions to discuss importance public policy issues and charge for them? I’ve always wondered why papers haven’t done this, both as a revenue source and to burnish their reputation as the promoter and defender of civic engagement within their communities. What’s the critical line that shall not be crossed by a journalistic organization with ever-more-intimidating bills to pay? The venue at the publisher’s house (reporters and politicians have broken bread together, off-the record, in Graham family digs for decades)? The Chatham House rules? The involvement of the reporting staff? The high ticket price? Surely, not simply that money changes hands.