When the Washington Post recently unveiled its plan to sell sponsorships of off-the-record "salons," the move was widely pilloried in the press and elsewhere. Even the Post's own Ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, described the move as "an ethical lapse of monumental proportions."
Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli have now fallen on their swords and taken full responsibility for what rapidly turned into a public relations debacle. Their idea of taking a fee of as much as $25,000 in exchange for a seat at the table with lawmakers, Obama Administration officials, think tank experts, business leaders and Post personnel including the publisher, editors and reporters was deemed ethically flawed, since the sponsored events involving news personnel tread perilously near -- or indeed crossed over -- the traditional line of mainstream media ethical boundaries. Charges of hypocrisy soon followed "against a newspaper that owes much of its fame to exposing influence peddlers and Washington's pay-to-play culture," as Alexander put it, adding, "The Post's reputation now carries a lasting stain."
Well, yes... but how large a stain is it, and how long-lasting will it actually prove to be?
Alexander rightly pointed out that, "Historically at quality newspapers such as the Post, a firewall exists between the business and news departments to ensure editorial integrity and independence." Thus, as a "quality newspaper," (sic) The Post's own "Standards and Ethics" guidelines stress the importance of newsroom neutrality.
The first guideline is as follows: "This newspaper is pledged to avoid conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest, wherever and whenever possible." Thus the newspaper "is committed to disclosing to its readers the sources of the information in its stories to the maximum possible extent." As Alexander further noted, "the salon dinners ran counter to the spirit of both. By having outside underwriters, The Post was effectively charging for access to its newsroom personnel. Reporters or editors could easily be perceived as being in the debt of the sponsors. And by promising participants that their conversations would be private, those attending would be assured a measure of confidentiality that the news department typically opposes."
So the Post does appear to have erred in violating its own stated ethical guidelines, at the very least. But beyond that particular issue, how great was Weymouth and Brauchli's sin? After all, we now inhabit a media landscape rife with layoffs and cutbacks, buyouts and furloughs, shuttered bureaus and shrinking news holes, citizen journalism and user-generated content, ads masquerading as articles, one-paper towns, no-paper towns... meanwhile that same world is all a-Twitter, if you will, with new norms and rapidly shifting values -- from a reliance for breaking celebrity news on "news" sites such as TMZ.com to a shift from double-source to no-source reporting, and from the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and "That's the way it is" to nightly broadcasts of unverified video and repeated images of photoshopped "reality" -- while at the same time, social networks like Facebook and YouTube are rapidly replacing news websites as primary publishing platforms. http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2009/07/08/end-of-news-website/
Moreover, it turns out that special interest and 'pay-for-play' salons are pretty much business as usual these days in most media circles. Atlantic Media publisher David Bradley -- owner of the Atlantic and the National Journal -- defended his company's six-year old practice of sponsored salons, noting 2,000 guests, including "journalists from virtually all major networks, national magazines and newspapers," have attended them.
In fact the Post was late to the sponsored salon party. In addition to Atlantic Media, a number of other leading entities -- including The Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker and The Economist -- have long seen such corporation-sponsored salons and conference as a lucrative source of income, one that David Bradley calls necessary and justified at a time when "the economic foundation beneath journalism is falling away."
Even Politico, which broke the story of the Post salons, is sneaking revenue-enhancers into its editorial coverage. What "reader benefit" was there for me when I clicked on a link to the word 'business' in their post about the Post's business -- only to learn, after the fact, that it was a paid link to a Blackberry ad embedded in the piece castigating the Post?
As Politico's Michael Calderone recently noted, most news organizations have been forced to look for alternative streams of revenue such as conferences and events that attendees have to pay to take part in. "It's understandable that the Post or other news organizations would want to do this," Calderone said. "The key difference, at least according to some media watchers and professors that I spoke to in the last couple days, is whether there is any benefit to the news organization and then in turn any benefit to readers. And the issue with the Washington Post salons, at least according to this flyer, was that they were going to be off the record. So there really is no ostensible benefit to readers."
A fair point -- but it implies the sin was one of omission rather than commission, does it not? If there is some sort of reader benefit, are such salons really so bad? Even if they are, is there any way to turn back the clock to a Twentieth Century Media Dream that may never really have been all that real in the first place?
As Zachary Roth noted recently on the Talking Points Memo web site:
"Clearly, there are degrees of egregiousness here. A corporate-sponsored event that's off the record and closed to the media and the public seems more objectionable than one that's open and on the record. Equally, an event that's focused on a public-policy issue that's of particular interest to the event's corporate sponsor seems more objectionable than, say, having a clothing company or an airline put up money for a festival that treats everything from the global economy to indie rock, as in the case of The New Yorker. An event whose advertising seeks to lure corporate lobbyists by promising the ability to directly influence elected officials or journalists seems, perhaps, more objectionable than one where the potential for influence-peddling is at least less explicit. It's also worth noting that when a daily newspaper risks compromising its coverage of a key policy issue, it probably does more damage than when a monthly ideas magazine appears to do the same.
So it's fair to say that the Post's plans, as described, seem to rank highest on the egregiousness scale than any arrangement that's yet surfaced -- with the Atlantic's own long string of corporate-sponsored "salons" perhaps coming in second. But the key point is that, even before this latest occasion for outrage, there was hardly the kind of clear and distinct line between the news and business sections of many major media outlets that the reaction to last week's news would suggest."
Let's face it -- in the fight for media survival, none of us is immune from temptation, and few revenue sources are beyond consideration, if not actual adoption. Things in Media Land are changing at the speed of light -- and nowhere faster than online, where product placements have come to Facebook status updates and "Sponsored Tweets" to Twitter. And if you think bloggers are somehow pure, unsullied and unsponsored, think again. 'Sploggers' and pay-per-post bloggers are everywhere these days - the latter pulling down both money and freebies in exchange for product recommendations and favorable reviews. Marketing companies pay to get their products to these so-called "influencers" with an online audience, so their paid-for opinions can help sway consumers.
Although such paid online sponsorships are still controversial, the horse has long since left the barn: Izea, an online marketing company that created PayPerPost, serves 25,000 advertisers and 265,000 bloggers in its network, paying them an average of $34 a post. As Richard Cleland, an assistant director at the Federal Trade Commission, assured the New York Times, "Consumers have a right to know when they're being pitched a product," -- so much so that the FTC is now considering mandatory disclosure of such blogger activities under truth-in-advertising guidelines.
One final thought: if, like so many others, you are currently "consuming" most of your media diet at low-or-no cost, while operating under the notorious Internet dictum that "Information wants to be free," should you really be quick to criticize the beleaguered poor publisher of The Washington Post for sponsoring salons in hopes of keeping the doors open and the news flowing? Where do we -- and where should we -- now draw the line? What do you think? Write in and tell me your thoughts on the ethics of pay-to-play journalism in a time of collapsing capitalism, fierce technological change and a "lost revenue model."