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What Did Washington Post Editor Know About Salons -- and When Did He Know It?

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The New York Times carried a rare Postscript in Saturday's paper in the space where Corrections and Editors Notes run, raising questions about whether it is, between the lines, charging the top Washington Post editor, Marcus Brauchli, with not telling the truth. Brauchli, in the same letter cited by the Times, claims that the Times' reporter misinterpreted him from the start -- but the Times did not note that in its Postscript.

Now reporters at Politico and The New Republic have brought out damaging details that put both papers even more on the spot. The Post's Howard Kurtz looked at it today in a piece far more friendly to Brauchli. It comes against a background of Post staffers resenting, from the start, the amount of coverage the Times gave to the "scandal."

It all stems from a Post marketing director taking the fall for promoting off-the-record "salons" in which advertisers could mingle with Post editors. The dinners, including one at new publisher Katharine Weymouth's house, were canceled when the "scandal" came to light. The marketing man had said the top people at the paper knew about the off-the-record rule, to no avail.

Here is the Times' Postscript:

"An article on July 3 reported on aborted plans for the publisher of The Washington Post to hold corporate-sponsored dinner parties including Post journalists. One issue in the controversy was that the dinners were being promoted as 'off the record.' The article quoted The Post's executive editor, Marcus W. Brauchli, as saying that the newsroom would 'reserve the right to allow any ideas that emerge in an event to shape or inform our coverage.' By The Post's definition of the term, that means the events would not be 'off the record.'

"On Sept. 12, an article in The Times reported that Charles Pelton, the marketing executive at the center of the plans, had resigned from The Post. That article, referring again to Mr. Brauchli's comments at the time, reported that he said he had not understood that the dinners would be off the record. However, in a subsequent letter to Mr. Pelton -- which was sent to The Times by Mr. Pelton's lawyer -- Mr. Brauchli now says that he did indeed know that the dinners were being promoted as 'off the record,' and that he and Mr. Pelton had discussed that issue."

So how does Brauchli explain this? Michael Calderone at Politico obtained a copy of the Brauchli letter to Pelton, and quotes from it here:

"I knew that the salon dinners were being promoted as 'off the record.' That fact was never hidden from me by you or anyone else. For instance, the dinners were described as 'off the record' in two slide presentations that I attended. You and I discussed the off-the-record nature of the dinners. The phrase was also used in marketing materials for the salons and in correspondence to the newsroom that you e-mailed to me.

"The New York Times reporter apparently misunderstood me. I was trying to explain to the reporter that my original intention had been that the dinners would take place under Chatham House Rule -- meaning that the conversations could be used for further reporting without identifying the speaker or the speaker's affiliation. That is not 'off the record' under the Post's definition of the term.

"By The Post's definition, 'off-the-record' information cannot be used, either in the paper or in further reporting. When the dinners were later described as 'off the record,' I should have said something at that point, but did not. And you certainly should not be faulted for my not speaking up."

The Times did not mention the Brauchli defense of simply being "misunderstood."

So, a simple case of one reporter misunderstanding Brauchli? Calderone pointedly notes:

"Brauchli made similar comments to me that he gave to the Times, and my understanding from our conversation was that he did not know the salon dinners were being promoted as off the record."

Now Gabriel Sherman, a longtime media writer, has joined in at The New Republic, tracing Pelton's moves to get the Times to correct its early piece.

It all began on September 25, when Pelton, through his lawyer George Frost, succeeded in getting Brauchli to send him a personal letter stating that he "knew that the dinners were being promoted as 'off the record.'" ...With Brauchli's revised-comments in hand, Pelton and his lawyer pushed back hard against the Times. On Sept. 28, three days later after receiving Brauchli's letter, Pelton's lawyer Frost wrote a letter to Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, executive editor Bill Keller, Pena and the public editor that cited Brauchli's revised comments on the off-the-record question and demanded the Times issue a correction.

"The article is little more than a rehashed Washington Post press release, but pretends to include fresh comment from Mr. Brauchli," Frost wrote, according to a copy of the letter he provided TNR. "Most fundamentally, Mr. Pelton should not be the victim in a "he said -- no he didn't say that" standoff between The Times and The Post. The Times has now been provided an "on-the-record" statement by the executive editor of The Post on this issue of fact. The statement is clear, and it contradicts the statement attributed to him in your September 12, 2009, article. One would think that The Times would consider this newsworthy in itself, or fix this out of a sense of journalistic rectitude."

But, in a telling reply on October 6, the Times' general counsel George Freeman responded that the paper wouldn't run a correction because they weren't wrong -- it was Brauchli who misrepresented his behavior in his interview with Pena. "As you point out, we acknowledge that his recent letter to Mr. Pelton gives a different picture of his position. However, we, of course, have no way to account for this discrepancy," Freeman wrote. "We simply have not, and cannot, run corrections when sources at later times, for whatever reasons, give differing accounts fo events."

Pelton's lawyer struck back in a letter dated October 15. "The Times' apparent willingness to so casually toss Mr. Pelton's career on a scrap heap of shoddy reporting is disheartening," he wrote. "I do not understand what principle you seek to vindicate by refusing this correction. Do you really seek to defend your reporter's reliance on stale notes more than two months old -- accurate or not -- and his failure to even attempt to contact Mr. Brauchli for the "Resignation" story? Is this what we should teach our students in First Year Reporting? Is it the Times' practice to fail to even try to contact the subject of a gotcha resignation story -- particularly a story by the Times' media reporter that focuses on the ethical "faux pas" of a rival? Who has committed a "faux pas" here?"

The letter concluded that Pelton would seek legal action if the matter wasn't resolved. Frost's efforts ultimately paid off.

Greg Mitchell is editor of Editor & Publisher. His latest book is "Why Obama Won."

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