Monetizing the Washington Dinner Party
The Washington Post's boneheaded—and aborted—plan to lobby for lobbyists.
Mike Allen's early-morning report in Politico that the Washington Post intended to sell access to its newsroom to lobbyists forced the paper's publisher and editor to back down from their plan at record speed. Allen reported that the Post had circulated a flier offering "lobbyists and association executives off-the-record, nonconfrontational access to 'those powerful few': Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and—at first—even the paper's own reporters and editors." The quoted cost of sponsorship for these "Washington Post Salons," the first of which Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth would host at her home on July 21, ranged from $25,000 to $250,000.
The salon series was quickly canceled by Weymouth, who said in a Howard Kurtz Post story published a little after noon that the fliers "got out" before they had been "vetted" and that they "didn't represent at all what we were attempting to do." Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli shared Weymouth's mortification. Although he had participated in discussions about the newsroom's participation in money-making conferences, he was "blindsided," Kurtz wrote, by the flier, which made it look as if the paper's reporters and editors were for sale. Kurtz reported that unnamed Post executives blamed the whole conflagration on "overzealous marketing executives." (Are the marketing guys being asked to take the fall? I hope not.)
I want to take Weymouth's and Brauchli's screams of shame as genuine, if only for this reason: If the paper decided to sell the newsroom's integrity, wouldn't it charge a thousand times the sticker price quoted in the rogue flier? Besides, the Post's "health care reporting and editorial staff," whose attendance the flier promised, would have refused to participate.
There's nothing new about journalists sitting down to a meal with high government officials, Washington fixers, and even "intellectuals" at the home of the publisher of the Washington Post. Katharine Graham hosted hundreds of such off-the-record affairs at her Georgetown residence during her years as Post publisher and company chairman.
Washington's power elite depended on its salons to trade gossip and influence and send social signals. You can argue that Graham's salon was useful to Washington Post readers because it kept channels of communication to valuable sources open for the paper's reporters or that it was corrupting because it compromised Post-ies who got too close to the powerful. Both are probably true, but the alternative of banning all socializing between reporters and sources seems unpractical as well as extremely stupid. What ultimately killed the classic Washington dinner party, Sally Quinn reported in a Dec. 13, 1987, Washington Post Magazine feature, was not the ethical problems but "economics, feminism, power breakfasts, calorie-counting, teetotaling, the hick factor, tunnel vision, fatigue, computer mentality and boring politicians and diplomats"—basically the vagaries of modern life. Oh, and Quinn also blames Jimmy Carter.
David Bradley, publisher and owner of the Atlantic,recently resurrected the power salon, hosting dinners attended by the very important at his Watergate offices. According to an April 27 Howard Kurtz piece in the Post, the Bradley meals have attracted Jordanian "royalty," notables from big business, the White House officials (past and present), a slew of journalists, and even British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
To be sure, traditional salons have delivered rewards. But the payouts have generally been indirect and almost exclusively psychological. Weymouth's now-canceled soirées differ from her grandmother's because they are monetized, charging lobbyists—a practice generally shunned by earlier salon-builders—for the chance to rub noggins with other influential guests. Whether or not Post newsroom employees would have attended, the Weymouth plan marked a break from the past.
There's no harm in selling influential mixing as long as the price is right and the relationship isn't tawdry, argues devil's advocate Peter Kafka. Kafka writes for the Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital, which also runs a big-bucks conference where attendees listen to digital-industry leaders pontificate. He notes quite rightly that "publications of all stripes" charge for "networking events where their editorial staffs participate."
Of course, there's a big difference between a conference run in broad daylight and an intimate for-pay gathering at a publisher's home. At a conference, sponsorship is transparent, and attendees aren't purchasing direct access to the notables on the stage. The whole point of buying a ticket to Weymouth's house, though, is to buy access—the publisher has essentially gone into the business of facilitating lobbying.
To gauge just how unkosher the Weymouth salon is, consider a smaller-scale version of the same practice: A reporter throws a poker party at his home. The guest list includes legislative aides and junior lobbyists. That's OK, right? It's just a poker game among a bunch of guys who live in Washington. But the minute the reporter starts charging the lobbyists money on the promise that legislative aides will attend, he's crossed the line. He's no longer hosting a party; he's arranging a lobbying session for personal profit. His editors would tan his hide. Then they'd fire him.