The Media Industry's Cash Crunch Makes Pay-to-Play Look Much More Tempting
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When the Washington Post recently unveiled its plan to sell sponsorships of off-the-record "salons," the move was widely pilloried in the press and elsewhere. Even the Post's own Ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, described the move as "an ethical lapse of monumental proportions."
Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli have now fallen on their swords and taken full responsibility for what rapidly turned into a public relations debacle. Their idea of taking a fee of as much as $25,000 in exchange for a seat at the table with lawmakers, Obama Administration officials, think tank experts, business leaders and Post personnel including the publisher, editors and reporters was deemed ethically flawed, since the sponsored events involving news personnel tread perilously near -- or indeed crossed over -- the traditional line of mainstream media ethical boundaries. Charges of hypocrisy soon followed "against a newspaper that owes much of its fame to exposing influence peddlers and Washington's pay-to-play culture," as Alexander put it, adding, "The Post's reputation now carries a lasting stain."
Well, yes but how large a stain is it, and how long-lasting will it actually prove to be?
Alexander rightly pointed out that, "Historically at quality newspapers such as the Post, a firewall exists between the business and news departments to ensure editorial integrity and independence." Thus, as a "quality newspaper," (sic) The Post's own "Standards and Ethics" guidelines stress the importance of newsroom neutrality.
The first guideline is as follows: "This newspaper is pledged to avoid conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest, wherever and whenever possible." Thus the newspaper "is committed to disclosing to its readers the sources of the information in its stories to the maximum possible extent." As Alexander further noted, "the salon dinners ran counter to the spirit of both. 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."
So the Post does appear to have erred in violating its own stated ethical guidelines, at the very least. But beyond that particular issue, how great was Weymouth and Brauchli's sin? After all, we now inhabit a media landscape rife with layoffs and cutbacks, buyouts and furloughs, shuttered bureaus and shrinking news holes, citizen journalism and user-generated content, ads masquerading as articles, one-paper towns, no-paper towns Meanwhile that same world is all a- Twitter, if you will, with new norms and rapidly shifting values - from a reliance for breaking celebrity news on "news" sites such as TMZ.com to a shift from double-source to no-source reporting, and from the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and "That's the way it is" to nightly broadcasts of unverified video and repeated images of photoshopped " reality" -- while at the same time, social networks like Facebook and YouTube are rapidly replacing news websites as primary publishing platforms.
Moreover, it turns out that special interest and 'pay-for-play' salons are pretty much business as usual these days in most media circles. Atlantic Media publisher David Bradley -- owner of the Atlantic and the National Journal -- defended his company's six-year old practice of sponsored salons, noting 2,000 guests, including "journalists from virtually all major networks, national magazines and newspapers", have attended them.
In fact the Post was late to the sponsored salon party. In addition to Atlantic Media , a number of other leading entities -- including The Wall Street Journal , the New Yorker and The Economist -- have long seen such corporation-sponsored salons and conference as a lucrative source of income, one that David Bradley calls necessary and justified at a time when "the economic foundation beneath journalism is falling away."