The Washington Post’s publisher abruptly canceled a series of policy dinners Thursday that were to have been underwritten by lobbyists or corporations willing to pay thousands of dollars to be in the same room as journalists and lawmakers, saying the marketing department had misrepresented the newspaper’s intent.
Lawmakers who had been invited said they were not told the events would make money for the newspaper. But the Post had separately sent fliers seeking sponsors who would pay $25,000 for a single “salon” or $250,000 for 11 events.
The concept raised questions about journalistic ethics.
Rep. Jim Cooper’s office said the Tennessee Democrat received an invitation this week to attend a dinner on July 21 at the house of Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican, was also among those asked to attend.
In both cases, the invitations came as personal e-mails from Weymouth’s office.
Cooper accepted, believing the dinner would be a low-key chance to exchange ideas about healthcare and other public policy matters, according to his staff. Snowe turned down the invitation.
Both Cooper’s and Snowe’s staff said there was no mention that the dinner might be a money-making opportunity for the Post.
But the fliers to potential sponsors spelled it out:
“Bring your organization’s CEO or executive director literally to the table,” the flier read. “Interact with key Obama administration and congressional leaders.”
The fliers described an “intimate and exclusive Washington Post salon, an off-the-record dinner and discussion at the home of CEO and Publisher Katharine Weymouth.”
News of the fliers was first reported by Politico, which said it obtained a copy from a healthcare lobbyist.
The Post canceled the dinners after the disclosure.
“It was clear the invitation was not being presented the same way to everyone,” said Jim Spragens, a spokesman for Cooper, a longtime player in healthcare reform.
“The way it was represented is a big part of this. I haven’t seen the flier, but they were charging hundreds of thousands of dollars for access. . . . Everybody didn’t have the same set of information,” Spragens said.
The Post also sent an invitation to the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius -- a key official in the president’s efforts to revamp healthcare.
The White House said Sebelius hadn’t decided whether to attend.
The Post said it would not release a list of public officials who’d been invited to the dinners.
Like many newspapers, the Post is searching for new revenue sources to compensate for sagging advertising income. Experts in journalism ethics said this venture went too far. A paper that built its reputation as a watchdog, holding public officials to account, appeared to be using its prestige to give corporate interests special access to politicians.
Little in the way of news was likely to emerge. The events were to be “off the record,” meaning nothing revealed at the dinners could be reported. Although Post reporters would be present, they could be counted on to be “nonconfrontational,” the fliers promised.
A Post reporter interviewed Thursday said the newsroom was “furious” about the plan. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the reporter said the ethics code at the paper is so strict that if reporters get so much as a coffee mug from someone they cover, they must donate the gift to charity.
“The whole thing stinks, but the money was the worst part. I was always taught that’s the line you never cross,” the reporter said.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said in an interview: “The problem here for the Post is pretty simple, and that is, a news organization derives its credibility from the idea that it’s operating in the public interest -- it’s trying to gather information and make it public.
“By holding off-the-record events for money, it’s hard to see how that generates any knowledge for the public. And it potentially undermines its claim that its first loyalty is to the citizen.”
The Post’s leaders said the dinners were not what they had envisioned.
In a statement, Weymouth said the flier was “prepared by the marketing department and was never vetted by me or by the newsroom. Had it been, the flyer would have been immediately killed, because it completely misrepresented what we were trying to do.”
Weymouth, granddaughter of legendary Post Publisher Katharine Graham, said the newspaper would continue to search for new revenue streams, “but we will pursue only avenues that uphold our high standards of journalism.”
Post Executive Editor Marcus W. Brauchli said in a statement: “We will not participate in events where promises are made that in exchange for money the Post will offer access to newsroom personnel or will refrain from confrontational questioning. Our independence from advertisers or sponsors is inviolable.”
Kris Coratti, a spokeswoman for the newspaper, said Weymouth and Brauchli knew there would be revenue drawn from the dinners. But they thought there would be a minimum of two sponsors -- thus limiting the financial influence of any one group, she said. The flier, in contrast, said there would be a maximum of two.
The flier, Coratti said, “is a misrepresentation of what they had originally been thinking about as a concept.”
In an interview with the Post’s ombudsman, Brauchli said he hadn’t seen the flier and would not have released it. In discussions about the project, he said he had believed he had set limits on participation by editorial staff.
He also said he might not have conveyed “effectively enough what the limitations were for newsroom participation.”
The dinners were a response to a financial crisis that has jeopardized the newspaper business.
With readers fleeing to the Internet, publishers have tried many different tactics to stem losses, including front-page ads and higher subscription rates. None of it has helped much.
The Washington Post Co. reported a first-quarter net loss of $19.5 million, compared with a net income of $39.3 million in the same period last year. That mirrors an industry-wide swoon that analyst Alan D. Mutter labeled “the worst quarter in the modern history of American newspapers.” Ad revenue plummeted more than 28% in the first three months of this year.
As newspapers struggle to stay alive, ethics experts say it is a mistake to compromise standards that underpin their credibility.
In April, The Times was criticized for running a front-page ad that resembled a news article.
Times staff writer James Rainey and Kristina Sherry of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.