08/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

WaPo Ombudsman Responds To Lobbyist Salons

Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander has very politely filleted his newspaper for its plan to gather lobbyists, administration officials, lawmakers, Post editors, and Post reporters in a $25,000-a-head re-enactment of Samuel Taylor Coleridge opium poems. Alexander calls the Post's decision to host these top-dollar lobbyist salons "an ethical lapse of monumental proportions." From there, it's sort of mixed bag.

"Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli have now taken full responsibility for what was envisioned as a series of 11 intimate dinners to discuss public policy issues," says Alexander. But if that were true, why has Alexander paraphrased them like so?

Neither Weymouth nor Brauchli can recall anyone raising concerns, although both say they wish someone had.

They were all aboard a fast-moving vehicle that, over a period of months, roared through ethics stop signs and plowed into a brick wall.

I'm sorry, but that's a load. If Weymouth and Brauchli truly are reliant on someone else at their company to tell them when, where, and how to do the right thing, then Weymouth and Brauchli need to disappear and an actual leader of some sort needs to ascend. Capturing this whole matter as some sort of runaway ethical go-cart that no one could have controlled is similarly insulting.

And to me, this doesn't sound like "taking full responsibility":

While Brauchli and Weymouth say they should have realized long ago that the plan was flawed, internal e-mails and interviews show questions about ethics were raised with both of them months ago. They also show that blame runs deeper. Beneath Brauchli and Weymouth, three of the most senior newsroom managers received an e-mail with details of the plan.

If Weymouth and Brauchli are, indeed, taking "full responsibility" for the matter, then who cares about all the little piggies working under them? If the captain of this ship is taking full responsibility, then the next step is to sanction the captain, not wring through all the underlings.

Lower down, others inside and outside the newsroom were aware that sponsored events would involve news personnel in off-the-record settings, although they lacked details. Several now say they didn't speak up because they assumed top managers would eventually ensure that traditional ethics boundaries would not be breached.

You know, shame on those lower down for assuming that someone else would ensure that "traditional ethics boundaries would not be breached." Nevertheless, I'll just assert the same chain of command issue. Clearly, there are a lot of people at the Post making wrongheaded assumptions about those at the top. How do those at the top view the matter? Well, they were the ones who wished someone had raised concerns!

Anyway, now's about the time you look for the fall guy!

A key player in the controversy is Charles Pelton, who joined the company May 18 as general manager of a new Washington Post Conferences & Events business. A veteran of the events business who has a background in journalism, he provided The Post's sales staff with the now-famous flier that sought underwriters for the July 21 dinner. It promised an evening of "news-driven and off-the-record conversation. Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No." And it said participants could "build crucial relationships with Washington Post news executives in a neutral and informal setting."

When it was disclosed, Brauchli and Weymouth say they were stunned. Both said they had not seen the flier in advance, that it miscast what was envisioned and that it ran counter to The Post's values. Brauchli said "parameters" had been discussed with Pelton that, among other things, included "multiple sponsors" and not a single sponsor with a vested interest.

Alexander adds: "Some at The Post view Pelton as overly eager and not attuned to the newsroom's ethical sensitivities." Wow. Unnamed critics in the ombudsman's piece? If there's someone who thinks Pelton is "overly eager" and not in tune with "the newsroom's ethical sensitivities," then I should like to have names, please.

Anyway, it would appear that Pelton really isn't all that far out of tune with the newsroom:

Within an hour of receiving the e-mail, Brauchli forwarded it to his top three editors -- managing editors Raju Narisetti and Liz Spayd, as well as deputy managing editor Milton Coleman -- asking their thoughts.

Spayd does not recall raising major concerns. "I thought we already had attached some key ground rules -- more than one sponsor, a balance of views, our ability to guide the conversation," she said. "In retrospect, that wasn't enough. We shouldn't have been doing them at all."

In his e-mailed response to Brauchli, Narisetti questioned using Weymouth's home ("bad idea for anything commercial") and added "we shouldn't commit to beat reporter." But he endorsed the concept and said it was fine for Brauchli to attend, although he added that "a couple of other relevant/key editorial people is the best we should promise."

Coleman, now a senior editor, said he offered a "first blush" response that agreed with Narisetti that Weymouth's home was not a good venue and that he vaguely recalls raising a concern about whether the evening might be off the record. He said he viewed the email as a "preliminary document" and assumed he would be involved in further discussions as the event took shape.

While I hear nips and tucks of concern, here, what I'm not hearing is the all-important: "What? Charge lobbyists $25,000 to meet with reporters, who'll serve as their go-between with lawmakers? That is maybe the foulest and most disturbing idea I have heard in a long time, Mr. Brauchli."

As it turns out, lots of activity on these salons was going on:

--There was a meeting "about a month later, on June 24" when "roughly 200 managers were given a quick explanation of the 'salons' idea at the end of a two-hour meeting in the cavernous auditorium on the lobby floor of The Post's downtown headquarters."

--Brauchli and Pelton attempted to sign up recruits: "At one point they showed up at the newsroom desk of reporter Ceci Connolly, who covers health care, which was to be the discussion topic of the July 21 dinner."

--Critically, Weymouth signed off on moving up the schedule, moving the salon dates from September to July: "Initial plans had envisioned starting the dinners in September. But Weymouth said Pelton was eager to begin in July and she said 'terrific, let's do it.'"

--The fliers themselves seem to have been produced mid-June: "On June 12, Post advertising employees received a Word document from Pelton...titled 'Washington Post Conferences' that touted sponsorship opportunities for a menu of events. Under 'Washington Post Salons' it promised newsroom participation by 'Executive editor, key section editor, beat reporter (optional)' and said the evening would be 'off the record.'"

--"On June 17, another Word document was provided by Pelton to The Post's advertising staff soliciting a $25,000 sponsorship...for the July listed Weymouth, Brauchli and 'Other Washington Post health care editorial and reporting staff.' It said participants could "Interact with core players in an off-the-record format."

--What goes unmentioned in this column is that the salons were also mentioned in an interview with Pelton that ran in an internal newsletter called Shoptalk, dated June 16. This means that a Post flack knew about the salons, from Pelton, prior to the newsletter's publication and that Pelton obviously felt comfortable enough to talk about the salons as a serious idea at the time of the interview. In the newsletter, Pelton happily discusses hosting "two-hour dinners with reporters, editors, policy makers, politicians, advocacy groups and other people who have a stake in a particular topic" for the expressed purpose of "profits." "We want to drop some money to the bottom line," Pelton said.

--Around June 24, the June 17 flier "was distributed to the ad sales staff."

--And whatever changes of heart Weymouth and Brauchli have had seems to be lost on Pelton, who, in the wake of the disclosure, told the New York Times, "This is a new venture, there were some stumbles and too much of a rush to the finish. And I've taken responsibility for my part in this. However, I strongly believe that journalism must support more than a newspaper and a set of Web sites. It needs new avenues of expression -- and revenue -- and live events are just one of these."

The work being done on these salons was thus being done openly, actively, on an agreed to timetable, and in multilateral fashion. At no time did the hammers of authority fall on Pelton, to stop what he was doing. Given the relentless forward push of this project, and the agreed upon July start date, is it hardly surprising that a flier was produced by Pelton?

The flier is not the smoking gun, here. It was merely the last shot fired.

For her part, Weymouth claims to have grown from the experience:

"Marcus has learned a lesson. I have learned a lesson. Everyone has learned a lesson," Weymouth said.

"I'm the leader of the organization. If anyone should have stopped it, it should have been me."

Well, I keep reflecting on: "Neither Weymouth nor Brauchli can recall anyone raising concerns, although both say they wish someone had."

"We wished someone would have raised concerns," would look awfully appropriate on the masthead, right about now.

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