In a sharply worded critique, the ombudsman of the Washington Post wrote on Saturday that the newspaper’s plan to sell interest groups private access to its journalists and to government officials was “an ethical lapse of monumental proportions” and “a lasting stain” on the Post’s reputation.
In the column, published in print yesterday, the ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, also reveals new details about how the plan developed and cites internal memos and interviews to show the involvement of executive editor Marcus Brauchli and publisher Katharine Weymouth. The column also says ethical questions were raised six weeks before they became public.
The Post intended to sell sponsorships to lobbyists, corporations and industry associations for dinners at Weymouth’s home, attended by Brauchli and journalists covering the evening’s topic, along with government officials.
The “salons” came to light in a July 2 article by Politico.com, which obtained a flier for the first event, set for July 21. After a hail of criticism from outsiders and its own newsroom, the Post dropped the plans.
“By having outside underwriters, the Post was effectively charging for access to its newsroom personnel,” Alexander wrote. “Reporters or editors could easily be perceived as being in the debt of the sponsors.”
Produced by Charles Pelton, a newly hired Post marketing executive, the flier asked prospective sponsors to pay US$25,000 for each dinner, promising nonconfrontational, off-the-record access to people in power.
Alexander wrote that in a May 21 e-mail message, Pelton argued for “background only” conversation and asked whether the events should be “on or off the record.”
The ombudsman also revealed in his column that other top editors who knew of the plan did not raise ethical concerns. Brauchli forwarded Pelton’s e-mail message to his top three lieutenants — one questioned using the publisher’s house and promising a specific reporter’s participation, but none challenged the overall concept.
On June 24, Pelton made a brief presentation to about 200 Post managers, telling them the events would be off the record.