Sunday, July 12, 2009

Journalism 101: Whoring in Hard Times

"The Washington Post's ill-fated plan to sell sponsorships of off-the-record 'salons' was an ethical lapse of monumental proportions."

So says the paper's ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, in a long mea culpa this weekend, underscoring how economic pressures can bedevil even those whose main business asset is a reputation for probity.

The lowliest staff member could have told the top people that it was not a good idea to ask $25,000 a head to attend "intimate dinners to discuss public policy issues" at the publisher's home with reporters serving as discussion leaders for "an evening of spirited but civil dialogue" with lawmakers and Administration members but, organizations being what they are, nobody did.

"They were all," Alexander writes, "aboard a fast-moving vehicle that, over a period of months, roared through ethics stop signs and plowed into a brick wall."

When a flier seeking underwriters for the first dinner this month was made public, an uproar ensued: "The damage was predictable and extensive, with charges of hypocrisy against a newspaper that owes much of its fame to exposing influence peddlers and Washington's pay-to-play culture. The Post's reputation now carries a lasting stain."

It's painful to imagine what Kay Graham, who took the heat for the Woodward/Bernstein exposure of Watergate that led to Richard's Nixon downfall, would have made of her granddaughter's decision to give lobbyists and their masters access to top government officials as well as her editors and reporters to help offset falling ad revenues.

Publisher Katharine Weymouth now says, "I have learned a lesson. Everyone has learned a lesson...If anyone should have stopped it, it should have been me."

She might have spared herself all this grief if she had known how the composer Gian Carlo Menotti answered the question of selling out commercially to support a noble endeavor.

"Your family is hungry," he said, "so send your sister out on the streets for a while. But when she came back, she would never be the same."

The Washington Post stopped just in time to keep its reputation for virtue, if not good judgment, intact.

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