Peddling influence by invitation-only

July 29, 2009

The media scandal of the moment involves a Washington Post initiative, now scuttled, in which lawmakers, officials, lobbyists and miscellaneous worthies were to be invited to exclusive private dinners hosted by the Post’s publisher and senior journalists. The so-called salons were meant to be money-makers. The Post was trolling for a pair of $25,000 sponsors for each of 11 soirees. In return the sponsors would have a chance to mingle with decision-makers and opinion-makers involved in whatever public policy was, shall we say, on the menu.

From the pitch: “Washington Post Salons are extensions of The Washington Post brand of journalistic inquiry into the issues, a unique opportunity for stakeholders to hear and be heard. At the core is a critical topic of our day. Dinner and a volley of ideas unfold in an evening of intelligent, news-driven and off-the-record conversation. … By bringing together those powerful few in business and policy-making who are forwarding, legislating and reporting on the issues, Washington Post Salons give life to the debate. Be at this nexus of business and policy with your underwriting of Washington Post Salons.”

After the website broke the news this month, the inaugural salon on health care reform was cancelled, and the Post has been getting slapped around with gusto.  As with any big institutional blunder, key figures stammered and apologized, everybody’s accepting responsibility as long as it carries no consequence, and subsequent reporting suggests nobody really considered just how bone-headed this idea was.

To be fair, there’s no clear consensus as to what was so wrong with it. That’s because at the moment much of the legacy news business is experiencing what the frat boys call the dry heaves, and your more heads-up bosses are desperate for whichever brand-enhancers, line-extensions, spinoffs or couplings might replace the advertising revenue that has left town. The new business model is grab what you can get, which might not preclude some high-minded pimping over the pate, especially when it’s discreet and leaves a generous gratuity for the caterer.

Some point out that sponsored events pay off. Magazines such as The Economist and The New Yorker, it’s noted, routinely sell admission to confabs where marquee intellectuals and panels of notables hold forth. The Atlantic has been singled out for its publisher’s off-the-record dinners, many of them sponsored by entities invested in whatever topic’s been teed up.

If, as the Post itself reported, health care companies are right now spending $1.4 million a day chasing the very people that the Post’s publisher has the juice to summon for a bite, wouldn’t the Post be crazy not to try to monetize that with a chummy soiree or two built around collegial chatter and some decent claret, with a markup for services rendered?

Besides, shouldn’t a news organization promote dialogue about the issues of the day among people who are knowledgeable, passionate or both? In that respect, the salons would do just what a news report does: convene people who know something about a topic and start a conversation. Indeed, forums let them talk directly without having a reporter paraphrase, recount and butcher their remarks.

That might be fine, seems to me, if only the Post plan weren’t otherwise so fundamentally corrupt. It represented a straight-up conflict of interest between the paper’s duties as a civic institution and its ambitions as a commercial entity, a conflict resolved entirely as a business matter. Instead of nourishing a public discourse the Post sought to foster a wholly private one, for the sole purpose of making money from it—while, incidentally, incurring no end of obligations to the big-shot guests whose unpaid presence at the dinners the Post was banking on.

Why were the salons to be off-the-record? Remember, the Post said each would gather people representing all sides of a policy debate. But if all the adversaries were present, who’d be left to keep secrets from?

Who knows.  Sensitive state secrets weren’t in play. It was the delicious prospect of being among the select few who truly matter, of sealing that membership with a vow of silence, which was the point.

That violates some pretty basic principles of what the Fourth Estate is supposed to stand for. If a news organization wants to fulfill a civic function it ought to heed principles of civic engagement: broad-based participation, affiliations declared, public access assured.

You could still make some money—selling tickets, sponsorships or both, renting expo space, publishing transcripts, hosting a continuing online dialogue.

What you can’t do is forget whom you’re ultimately working for.

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