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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Whatís Wrong With The Washington Postís Salons?

Apparently surprised by adverse criticism, The Washington Post’s publisher has appointed the newspaper’s legal counsel to review the paper’s plan to produce sponsored salons.  The objective is to  ensure the salons do not breach journalistic ethics and impinge upon the paper’s journalistic integrity (see Calderone/Politico).  Now why, with all of the high-paid, experienced and objective reporters and editors on  the paper’s staff, did the publisher turn for this investigation to an attorney instead of a journalist?

Perhaps in conducting his review, the paper’s legal counsel will recognize that the plan to hold the “salons” does trip over the issue of journalistic objectivity and independence:  It is not the publisher’s holding a get-together of important persons that would seem to be cause for concern.  After all, the media hold get-togethers all the time with selected government officials and other important persons.  There are, for example, media-produced round-tables moderated by an editor, the results of which may be transcribed and published.  There are symposia of movers and shakers or analysts moderated by an editor, which the public can attend for a fee and shake hands with the speakers and with other paying attendees.   There are editorial background meetings and luncheon meetings between important people and journalists--on the record or off --during which the important people describe their organizations and present their views on issues.  So what is troubling about The Post’s plan for salons?

The plan stumbles because the  newspaper’s journalists would apparently be attending the gatherings at the publisher’s behest and in connection with the sale of sponsorships.  Moreover, there seems to be an implicit offer of publicity for the sponsor in exchange for payment—i.e.,  for sponsorship.  There seems also to be implicit recognition that the newspaper’s editorials and reporting can be influenced by information and arguments persuasively delivered--and attentively heeded because of the price attached.  Otherwise, why would a potential sponsor consider paying for this access?  If he is important and has something significant to say, then editorial writers and reporters would want to listen—without the sponsor’s having to pay an entry fee.  Of course, the important person might not be important enough—or lucky enough--to gain a hearing through normal journalism channels—i.e., through selection by the journalist based on the merits of the issue and the degree of importance of the person.  That is where the salon seems to come in.  The salon, produced by the business side of the newspaper, offers the potential sponsor an end run around daily journalism.

No wonder, then, that journalists at The Post and elsewhere do not like the idea of these salons.  Those able to afford to “pay to play” would be given access to key journalists and, through them, to The Post’s various publications, including print, blogs, and web site.

That’s not to say that the publisher should be unable to meet with major public figures.  After all, the publisher heads the advertising side of the house.  So there can be yacht cruises and meetings at resorts at which the publisher and his advertising sales reps talk about the value of advertising.  And there can be discussion of ways to make ads seems more like journalist-produced stories, such as through advertorials.  And the publisher might even develop a line of business based on special events, including symposia.

In this case, however, by making editorial access part of the sponsor’s inducement, The Post seems to have breached the holy wall between advertising and journalism—to have crossed the established Church-State divide.

-- Jeff Bogart

7:39 pm edt          Comments

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