July 2, 2009 -- The Washington Post is nixing a reported plan to sell access to its newsroom staff and Obama administration officials to lobbyists and corporate interests, a spokeswoman for the paper said Thursday.
The Politico newspaper reported Thursday morning the venerable Washington paper had invited lobbyists to participate in "off-the-record," non-confrontational meetings with Post reporters and editors, as well as with administration officials and others, by paying between $25,000 and $250,000.
The meetings would have been held at the private home of Post CEO and President Katharine Weymouth, according to the flyer obtained by Politico. The paper said it received the document from a health care lobbyist who was struck by the apparent conflict of interest.
"An evening with the right people can alter the debate," the document promised, according to the Politico report, by former Washington Post reporter Mike Allen. In his report, Allen called the meetings "astonishing."
The planned events would have been a stark break from the paper's storied past, that most famously includes breaking the Watergate scandal. That coverage forced the resignation of former president Richard Nixon, and ushered in an era of reform in Washington that expanded Americans' ability to understand how their government works.
Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein wrote on the paper's Web site that the plan was "appalling" and that he had never been asked to participate in any of the meetings. In its blog, the respected liberal Washington Monthly magazine called the meeting idea a "jaw-dropping scheme."
Kelly McBride, a journalism ethics expert with the Florida-based Poynter Institute, said the plan went against the paper's own values, to make the legislative process transparent to the public. Involving reporters and editors in closed-door meetings of powerful lawmakers and lobbyists "completely undermines that notion of transparency," she said.
In an emailed statement to ABC News Thursday morning, a Post spokeswoman paper called the flyer a "draft" that had not been properly vetted.
Paper Backs off Controversial Plan
"This draft does not represent what the company's vision for these dinners are, which is meant to be an independent, policy-oriented event for newsmakers," read the statement by the Post's Kris Coratti. Coratti did not immediately respond to a request for an explanation of how the vetting process broke down, or whether Weymouth had approved the plan before the document was distributed.
Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli said he had been involved in discussions about holding private events involving newsroom staff, but none like what was described in the flyer. "The idea of doing dinners was openly being discussed, and that they would be off the record," said Brauchli by phone Thursday. "The approach of this particular brochure is far beyond the pale."
Brauchli declined to say whether he had spoken with CEO Weymouth about the flyer, and whether she knew and approved of the event as it was described. "I think I should probably keep internal discussions internal," he said.
"It's hard to imagine that [Weymouth] knew all the details of this," said Poynter's McBride. "It seems to me it would be hard to be the publisher of the Washington Post and not have a clear idea of what your paper's values are."
But in an internal memo sent Thursday afternoon, Weymouth appears to indicate she knew the basics of the plan: a series of exclusive dinners, hosted at her home, that would be marketed by the paper's business side and would involve newsroom staff.
"We were planning to do a series of dinners and had requested newsroom participation but with parameters such that we did not in any way compromise our integrity," Weymouth wrote. The July dinner marketed in the flyer obtained by Politico was being cancelled, she said, but "we will begin to do live events in ways that enhance our reputation and in no way call into question our integrity."
The offending flyer, said Weymouth, "was never vetted by me or by the newsroom."
The Washington Post company, which owns the paper as well as television stations, the Kaplan educational company, and Newsweek magazine, has watched its profits drop for nine months in a row. Last week, the rating agency Standard & Poor's cut the company's credit rating. An S&P analyst said the firm expected the Post company's earnings to decline by about 30 percent this year, worse than previously expected.
Shortly after Politico published its story online, Brauchli issued a memo to the paper's newsroom declaring flatly that his staff would not be involved in such a scheme.
"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," Brauchli wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by ABC News.
Brauchli, who was reportedly named on the flyer as a participant in the first event, said the paper was able to "do these things in ways that are consistent with our values."