Update: This is a piece I wrote for Mediaite that got pushed out by other news. The WaPo ombudsman is as unimpressed as I am by Weymouth’s explanation.
The hot, steaming mess that is the Washington Post Salon-gate scandal just keeps getting hotter and more messified. Katharine Weymouth, the publisher who was to host the chummy, “non-confrontational” soirees with Post reporters and Obama administration officials, has issued an apology:
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. A flier distributed last week suggested that we were selling access to power brokers in Washington through dinners that were to take place at my home. The flier was not approved by me or newsroom editors, and it did not accurately reflect what we had in mind. But let me be clear: The flier was not the only problem (emphasis mine). Our mistake was to suggest that we would hold and participate in an off-the-record dinner with journalists and power brokers paid for by a sponsor. We will not organize such events. As publisher it is my job to ensure that we adhere to standards that are consistent with our integrity as a news organization. Last week, I let you, and the organization, down.
That’s a pretty good start, but then, Weymouth goes on to explain that the way she had planned out the events would have been just ginchy. So what happened?
When the flier promoting our first planned event to potential sponsors was released, it overstepped all these lines. Neither I nor anyone in our news department would have approved any event such as the flier described.
We have canceled the planned dinner. While I do believe there is a legitimate way to hold such events, to the extent that we hold events in the future, large or small, we will review the guidelines for them with The Post’s top editors and make sure those guidelines are strictly followed.
That sounds a lot, to me, like “Yeah, the problem was the fliers.”
The Post’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, doesn’t seem to be buying what Weymouth is selling:
Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti issued a statement describing the flier as a “draft.”
The “draft” is a single-page solicitation, printed in full color on glossy paper, which was distributed to potential underwriters for a gathering on health care. It reads: “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” on July 21.
Oh, it was a draft. Kinda like those photocopied sheets they distribute in every office in America for the football pool, or something. Just a sketchy, hastily prepared spitball-y deal, right? Not so much.
Alexander goes on to quote Charles Pelton, whose office produced the flier, taking a curiously high-handed attitude:
“There’s no intention to influence or peddle,” Pelton said this morning. “There’s no intention to have a Lincoln Bedroom situation,” referring to charges that President Clinton used invitations to stay at the White House as a way of luring political backing.
Do you really want to bring up bedroom hijinks here, Chuck?
The one positive, as I have noted, is that the Washington Post’s own Howard Kurtz did a good job in reporting on his own paper’s scandal. Still, although it’s pretty clear to me that Kurtz got all he could out of Weymouth, some may question whether he really held his boss’s boss’s feet to the fire.
It also has the side-effect of undercutting Post reporters’ ability to point out other journalists’ potential conflicts of interests. For example, when this story broke, I was immediately put in mind of Dana Milbank’s lecture of HuffPo’s Nico Pitney on Kurtz’s own “Reliable Sources.” That splinter in Pitney’s eye is looking positively microscopic, now.
Kurtz, ironically enough, raised questions about such conflicts in reporting on the launch of this site. In responding to criticism about his consulting business, Mediaite founder Dan Abrams was blunt:
Says Abrams: “It does seem I’m being held to a higher standard than anyone else in the history of the consulting world. That’s okay. . . . What some of the purists say is that if you’re engaged in journalism at all, you should not be able to work with business, ever.”
By that standard of purity, it would be tough to argue for the continued existence of the Post, at least under the stewardship of Katharine Weymouth.