Apparently surprised by adverse criticism, The Washington Post’s publisher
has appointed the newspaper’s legal counsel to review the paper’s plan to produce sponsored salons. The
objective is to ensure the salons do not breach journalistic ethics and impinge upon the paper’s journalistic
integrity (see Calderone/Politico). Now why, with all of the high-paid, experienced and objective reporters and editors
on the paper’s staff, did the publisher turn for this investigation to an attorney instead of a journalist?
Perhaps in conducting his review, the paper’s legal counsel will recognize that the
plan to hold the “salons” does trip over the issue of journalistic objectivity and independence: It is not
the publisher’s holding a get-together of important persons that would seem to be cause for concern. After all,
the media hold get-togethers all the time with selected government officials and other important persons. There are,
for example, media-produced round-tables moderated by an editor, the results of which may be transcribed and published.
There are symposia of movers and shakers or analysts moderated by an editor, which the public can attend for a fee and shake
hands with the speakers and with other paying attendees. There are editorial background meetings and luncheon
meetings between important people and journalists--on the record or off --during which the important people describe their
organizations and present their views on issues. So what is troubling about The Post’s plan for salons?
The plan stumbles because the newspaper’s journalists would apparently be attending
the gatherings at the publisher’s behest and in connection with the sale of sponsorships. Moreover, there seems
to be an implicit offer of publicity for the sponsor in exchange for payment—i.e., for sponsorship. There
seems also to be implicit recognition that the newspaper’s editorials and reporting can be influenced by information
and arguments persuasively delivered--and attentively heeded because of the price attached. Otherwise, why would a potential
sponsor consider paying for this access? If he is important and has something significant to say, then editorial writers
and reporters would want to listen—without the sponsor’s having to pay an entry fee. Of course, the important
person might not be important enough—or lucky enough--to gain a hearing through normal journalism channels—i.e.,
through selection by the journalist based on the merits of the issue and the degree of importance of the person. That
is where the salon seems to come in. The salon, produced by the business side of the newspaper, offers the potential
sponsor an end run around daily journalism.
No wonder, then, that journalists
at The Post and elsewhere do not like the idea of these salons. Those able to afford to “pay to play” would
be given access to key journalists and, through them, to The Post’s various publications, including print, blogs, and
That’s not to say that the publisher should be unable
to meet with major public figures. After all, the publisher heads the advertising side of the house. So there
can be yacht cruises and meetings at resorts at which the publisher and his advertising sales reps talk about the value of
advertising. And there can be discussion of ways to make ads seems more like journalist-produced stories, such as through
advertorials. And the publisher might even develop a line of business based on special events, including symposia.
In this case, however, by making editorial access part of the sponsor’s inducement,
The Post seems to have breached the holy wall between advertising and journalism—to have crossed the established Church-State
-- Jeff Bogart