A controversy that has ‘left a scar’

A CONTROVERSY THAT HAS ‘LEFT A SCAR’…. Andrew Alexander, the Washington Post‘s ombudsman, tries today to add a coda to his paper’s ill-fated plan to host off-the-record “salons.” In the process, Alexander fleshes out previously unreported details.

Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said as soon as the controversy broke that they’d never seen the invitation to lobbyists, inviting them to buy access for a $25,000 fee. But it turns out, there’s more to it than that.

While Brauchli and Weymouth say they should have realized long ago that the plan was 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. Several now say they didn’t speak up because they assumed top managers would eventually ensure that traditional ethics boundaries would not be breached.

When the Politico initially broke the story two weeks ago, we were led to believe there’d been considerable distance between the Post‘s business development/marketing team, and the editorial/newsroom team. It was embarrassing, the paper’s editors conceded, but the left hand didn’t quite realize what the right hand was doing.

Alexander’s report makes clear that there was far more to it than that. Not only were the publisher and editors aware of the controversial events, newsroom managers had been briefed on what to expect. They’d even reached out to reporter Ceci Connolly, who covers health care, who provided some contact information on insiders who might be willing to participate in the first of the paper’s “salons.”

The ombudsman’s piece also noted that the paper has “Standards and Ethics” guidelines that stress, in the very first sentence, “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.”

In light of the details, Alexander concludes, “The Post’s reputation now carries a lasting stain…. The episode has left a scar that will be visible for years, and it has badly shaken the newsroom.”