When Newspapers Peddle Influence

Some time last week the Washington Post issued a flier advertising a "salon" on the health-care issue. Over dinner at the home of the paper's publisher, Katharine Weymouth, participants were promised "a collegial evening, with Obama administration officials, Congress members, business leaders, advocacy leaders and other select minds."

The paper's executive editor and its "health-care reporters" would be there too, but not in a "confrontational" capacity, you could rest assured. Everything would be safely "off-the-record." And you could "bring your organization's CEO or executive director literally to the table" for a mere $25,000.

Even in Washington, it's unusual to see an actual price tag placed on a chance to "alter the debate," as the Post's flier tastefully put it. Stranger still is it to see the city's scourge of public corruption -- the Post broke the Watergate story and the Walter Reed scandal, among others -- seemingly offering its own good offices for hire.

It was a moment of rare, piquant hypocrisy. Let us take it slow and savor every drop.

To begin with, just think of the functions of righteousness that the Post effectively put up on the block. Here was journalism's zealous guardian of professional rectitude with its hand apparently out for a little bit of baksheesh. Here was the definer of the capital's consensus, the policer of its ideological boundaries, seemingly offering to adjust its vast reserves of Washington wisdom for you if the price was right.

In such a ham-handed manner, too. When the leading newspaper of the capital city of the world's most powerful country decides to turn influence-peddler, is this the best it can do? An advertisement that reads as though it were promoting expensive scotch? ("Bringing together those powerful few.") Not even favorite Post targets like Jack Abramoff stooped to that.

Even worse were the lame excuses offered by the paper's brass, who blamed one another after the embarrassing story broke and immediately canceled the get-together. The flier hadn't been properly "vetted," they said. Ms. Weymouth had been out of town. Plus assorted other feeble explanations.

If this was a slip it was a Freudian one, the kind that tells us something true and revealing about what is going on inside.

We are living, after all, in a sort of conflict-of-interest golden age. Professionalism is for sale almost wherever you choose to look. Among the forces that most conspicuously drove the late real-estate bubble, for example, were appraisers and bond rating agencies that apparently decided to put themselves on the market.

The city of Washington is an extreme case of this marketized world. The capital swarms with hired guns, payola pundits, and think tanks on a mission. Every bad idea that has ever appealed to the funding class is well-represented here. And with the coming of the health-care debate, as the Post itself has noted, the entire apparatus has swung into well-compensated action.

Then there is the city's cult of power, in which the Post sometimes serves as high priest. Despite its many famous takedowns of the corrupt, the newspaper often seems fascinated with the lives of the rich and the well-connected: their struggles for access, the clever things they say, the trappings of their wealth, the techniques by which they have monetized their power.

In April, for example, one Post columnist described a dinner salon series run by the Atlantic magazine whose guests "are as A-list as they come." Superstar names were dropped. The benefits to journalism were vigorously asserted. Rahm Emanuel himself was quoted hailing the suspension of "the adversarial."

The Post's own confused relationship with power is also often summarized by reference to dinner parties, in this case the ones given by Ms. Weymouth's grandmother, Katharine Graham. "The great men of Washington, up until the Nixon administration, came regularly to Mrs. Graham's dinner parties, the best ticket in town, and as they socialized over good food and wine, the adversarial role diminished," wrote David Halberstam in his 1979 book, The Powers That Be. "They were close, they were friends, these were not just men of power, they were men of good will, events were seen as they wanted them seen."

All that was missing, apparently, was a price tag.

Today, of course, the newspaper industry is in crisis. And public service, along with all such intangible ideals, is quickly disappearing into the cash nexus. The only possible reason to revive Ms. Graham's legendary dinners today is as a revenue stream.

Instead, of course, what the Post's proprietors did was hasten the day of reckoning. If I had $25,000 to spare, I'd advise them to forget about befriending the A-list. Stick to the public -- what you might call the Z-list.

Also in the Opinion Journal:
McNamara and the Liberals' War