WaPo's 'ethical lapse of monumental proportions'

William Tate
"an ethical lapse of monumental proportions." 

That is how the Washington Post's own Ombudsman describes WaPo's salongate -- and, yes, the suffix is used intentionally, since the term was first used to describe the Washington Post's rabid efforts to unseat Richard Nixon.

In case you were distracted by coverage of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, or the king of media pop, Barack Obama, WaPo was caught with its hands in the cookie jar when Politico revealed that the Post was attempting to sell access to Obama administration officials, and its own executives and reporters, for up to $250,000 for a series of 'off the record' salons.

In a Sunday column, Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander writes that arguments by WaPo Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Executive Editor Marcu Brauchli that they should have realized earlier that WaPo was prostituting itself, and its reporters, are seriously 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.

"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... The damage was predictable and extensive, with charges of hypocrisy against a newspaper that owes much of its fame to exposing influence peddlers and Washington's pay-to-play culture. The Post's reputation now carries a lasting stain."

Keep in mind, this same ombudsman only last week was contending that the Post continued to maintain a "reputation for ethical purity", despite lapses, including "the worst scandal in journalistic history: In 1980 Janet Cooke, who had written a riveting profile of an eight-year-old heroin addict, was forced to resign and return the Pultizer Prize after admitting she fabricated the award-winning story."

Alexander continued:

"The Post has internal 'Standards and Ethics' guidelines that stress the importance of newsroom neutrality. The first line says: 'This newspaper is pledged to avoid conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest, wherever and whenever possible.' Later, it states the newspaper 'is committed to disclosing to its readers the sources of the information in its stories to the maximum possible extent'."

Protests by Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli that they should have realized that WaPo's attempt to prostitute itself earlier are flawed. According to Anderson:

"In essence, Alexander's piece reveals that, at WaPo at least, 'When the publisher and the editor both appear to have signed off on an idea, I think it is perhaps true that a certain complacency sets in,' according to Brauchli.


"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."

Weymouth and Brauchli came to realize all this was wrong -- but only after the controversy erupted.

"Obviously, it didn't raise red flags for me or we wouldn't have gotten this far," Weymouth said.

Ironically, Alexander's piece reminded readers of the Post's Watergate heyday:

"The 'salon dinner' concept was a throwback to when Katharine Graham, as publisher, hosted private dinner parties for power brokers."

The difference was, then it was on Graham's dime -- not someone to whom the Post was trying to sell their little remaining credibility.

William Tate is an award-winning journalist and author
"an ethical lapse of monumental proportions." 

That is how the Washington Post's own Ombudsman describes WaPo's salongate -- and, yes, the suffix is used intentionally, since the term was first used to describe the Washington Post's rabid efforts to unseat Richard Nixon.

In case you were distracted by coverage of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, or the king of media pop, Barack Obama, WaPo was caught with its hands in the cookie jar when Politico revealed that the Post was attempting to sell access to Obama administration officials, and its own executives and reporters, for up to $250,000 for a series of 'off the record' salons.

In a Sunday column, Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander writes that arguments by WaPo Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Executive Editor Marcu Brauchli that they should have realized earlier that WaPo was prostituting itself, and its reporters, are seriously 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.

"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... The damage was predictable and extensive, with charges of hypocrisy against a newspaper that owes much of its fame to exposing influence peddlers and Washington's pay-to-play culture. The Post's reputation now carries a lasting stain."

Keep in mind, this same ombudsman only last week was contending that the Post continued to maintain a "reputation for ethical purity", despite lapses, including "the worst scandal in journalistic history: In 1980 Janet Cooke, who had written a riveting profile of an eight-year-old heroin addict, was forced to resign and return the Pultizer Prize after admitting she fabricated the award-winning story."

Alexander continued:

"The Post has internal 'Standards and Ethics' guidelines that stress the importance of newsroom neutrality. The first line says: 'This newspaper is pledged to avoid conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest, wherever and whenever possible.' Later, it states the newspaper 'is committed to disclosing to its readers the sources of the information in its stories to the maximum possible extent'."

Protests by Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli that they should have realized that WaPo's attempt to prostitute itself earlier are flawed. According to Anderson:

"In essence, Alexander's piece reveals that, at WaPo at least, 'When the publisher and the editor both appear to have signed off on an idea, I think it is perhaps true that a certain complacency sets in,' according to Brauchli.


"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."

Weymouth and Brauchli came to realize all this was wrong -- but only after the controversy erupted.

"Obviously, it didn't raise red flags for me or we wouldn't have gotten this far," Weymouth said.

Ironically, Alexander's piece reminded readers of the Post's Watergate heyday:

"The 'salon dinner' concept was a throwback to when Katharine Graham, as publisher, hosted private dinner parties for power brokers."

The difference was, then it was on Graham's dime -- not someone to whom the Post was trying to sell their little remaining credibility.

William Tate is an award-winning journalist and author