Washington Post Plans Salons With Lobbyists: Anyone Shocked?

You know, whenever I try to point out how, in Washington, DC, the line between "edit meeting" and "cocktail party" has become blurred to the point of ridiculousness, there's never a shortage of people who'll line up and tell me how cynical I am. But from time to time, I get to issue a big fat, "Suck it!" and one of those days is today, thanks to this article in the Politico:

For $25,000 to $250,000, The Washington Post is offering lobbyists and association executives off the record, non-confrontational access to "those powerful few" -- Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and the paper's own reporters and editors.

The astonishing offer is detailed in a flier circulated Wednesday to a health-care lobbyist, who provided it to a reporter because the lobbyist said he feels it's a conflict for the paper to charge for access to, as the flier says, its "health care reporting and editorial staff."

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.

Oh, the memories this brings to mind! Why I can recall a day, many years ago, when I was Wonkette, when I got Gawker Media into a whole heap of bad mojo. I had posted an item given to me by a tipster who said that Mike Allen, then of Time Magazine had been at a party at Dick and Lynne Cheney's house telling anyone who would listen that he knew who that year's Time Person of the Year would be. I put up the post, and suddenly everyone was outraged and I was a big jerk who told tales out of school. (On Wonkette. I know: HEAVENS TO BETSY!) (You can read what remains of that heavily redacted item, here.)

Anyway, what can I say? I was a noob, I guess? Unversed in the witchy ways of Washington politesse was I, and it showed. But you have to understand it from my perspective: The fact that some media type was off flaunting his scoops at a party in order to impress political types didn't strike me as something all that unexpected or rare. To me, it was just a wildlife study, and I seem to recall that Dian Fossey published all sorts of observations of her quarry without vetting her copy with the gorillas' spokespersons.

Anyway, after all the outrage over my Wonkette post had died down, I lived to write another day; Wonkette's proprietress, Ana Marie Cox, went to work for TIME; and Mike Allen got to deliver today's report on the WASHINGTON POST playing with lobbyists. Circle of life!

What this long preamble seeks to reinforce with you, gentle reader, is that I have been here, in Washington, a long time. And while I definitely experienced a mix of emotions when I read this story in Politico, there was a notable absence: shock. I was not shocked to read this report. Nor was I shocked to read the official WaPo response from Kris Coratti, his eerily practiced language, speaking in a resounding, "How did that happen?" And shock was similarly off the menu when Howard Kurtz reliably went around collecting everyone's statement, keeping the "critic" part of his "media critic" title corralled in the passive voice.

Yeah, there was really not a lot of shock to be had, I'm afraid. That said, this doesn't mean we can't have a whole lot of fun asking questions!

First off, when I heard that there might be lobbyists in the market for the Washington Post to play go-between between K Street and the White House, at first blush, I was inclined to think, "Hmmm. Maybe there really is something to this. Maybe the White House really is that hostile to the advances of lobbyists that they need all of this extra help!" But then, I consulted my birth certificate, and lo, the date July 1, 2009 did not appear on it.

So I would very much love to have a list of the "Obama administration officials [and] members of Congress" who were prepared to attend these little soirees. I especially want to know who was coming from the White House, after they made such a big, blessed deal about how they weren't going to cozy up to lobbyists, AT ALL. (With exceptions made for certain defense industry lobbyists with indispensable genius, of course.)

Nevertheless, I do not believe, not for one blessed minute, that the lobbying world is in such desperate need of a new channel to access lawmakers. Those channels are open because said lawmakers want to get re-elected. So, I am left to conclude that the key reason all this money might have potentially changed hands was in order to get access to "the paper's own reporters and editors."

And make no mistake, that's the only group of people from the Washington Post with whom anyone at a lobbying firm wants to converse. Coratti's statement reads, "The flier circulated this morning came out of a business division for conferences and events, and the newsroom was unaware of such communication." Please do not make me pull out my birth certificate again! The first of these "salons" was to be at Katherine Weymouth's house, and Marcus Brauchli was to be a featured guest.

Weymouth, for her part, issued the following statement:

"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."

I have some ideas for Weymouth, as to a better way to avoid "impugning the integrity of the newsroom" while better representing "what [you are] attempting to do." TELL MARCUS BRAUCHLI TO STAY HOME FROM THESE EVENTS, maybe. How about: DON'T HOST THE EVENT AT YOUR HOUSE. The juxtaposition of these two concepts -- "roomful of lobbyists" and "Katherine Weymouth's personal dining room, at Katherine Weymouth's own house" -- don't leave a whole lot of mystery! Another suggestion: Maybe add a preliminary "vetting" stage where the people in your business division come to you and say something like: "Hey, Katherine, should we be putting your address on these fliers, which we are giving to lobbyists?"

I will say this about that Washington Post business division: I LOVE ME THOSE PRICING MODELS! $25,000 gets you into one of these "salons," but for $250,000, you get the eleventh salon for free! THIS IS EXACTLY HOW I PAY FOR CHOP'T SALADS! Was the Washington Post going to provide punchcards? If so, could I still have one, to commemorate this totally frabjous day in our lives?

I also admire this part of Mike Allen's report:

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.

One email I read on this matter notes that this is about as close to describing the "pimp/ho" relationship as you can get away with in the Politico (who by the way, ALSO hosts sponsored parties). Maybe this is how print journalists "struggle for survival." It's enough to make you admire the class and dignity that Dian Fossey's charges display in their own struggles.

It's a funny thing. Just the other day, I was on the phone with my mother, who moved to Washington, DC as a child and whose father was a newsman in Hammond, Indiana. She was, on that occasion, lamenting the disappearance of a forgotten DC institution, the Evening Star. I don't have many memories of this paper, myself. During my lifetime it was known as the Washington Star, and a failing brand. But what my mother most admired about the Evening Star was that it practiced a "studied lack of concern" with anything having to do with the federal government. Instead, they went about their journalism with the guiding philosophy that there were actual people living in Washington, DC, living actual lives, who needed the news they needed to know.

In DC today, all journalism slouches toward Capitol Hill, seeking to be reborn. The paper that broke this story, Politico, makes its bacon selling print ads targeted at "influentials" -- that is, politicos. The Washington Times is reorganizing around national politics. The Washington Examiner is investing big money in institutionalizing a conservative-leaning political presence, that seems intended to be a righty version of TPM. And the Washington Post it seems, is much the same, competing for the same eyeballs and the same ad dollars, and demonstrating that they, too, are not above playing fast and loose to get some.

Of course, somewhere, at the Washington Post, there's some editor with a little bit of that Evening Star spirit, who desperately wants answers to what happened the other day on the Red Line Metro that resulted in the deaths of so many people. But no one is paying $25,000 to meet with that guy. And nobody is hosting a meeting at Katherine Weymouth's house to make sure that top notch reportage is applied to that story. The people affected by that train disaster just aren't influential enough. They aren't invited to the right parties.

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