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Restoring The Post's Credibility With Readers -- and Staff

By Andy Alexander

The Post's leaders scrambled today to try to restore some of the credibility lost in the “salons” controversy. They're moving in the right direction. But numerous questions remain about how such an ethically flawed idea could have gotten so far. And the paper faces a battle to re-establish trust among even some of its most devoted readers.

Long term, the best way to do that is through journalism that is consistently accurate, fair, aggressive and believable.

Short term, Post executives need to show the same degree of candor and transparency that the newspaper demands of the institutions and individuals it covers. There should be a top-to-bottom review of standards with new safeguards implemented to prevent a recurrence. And if heads should roll, it shouldn't matter where they are on the management chart.

Over the past few days, Post management has reacted properly.

Post media reporter Paul Farhi, who wrote about the issue on Sunday, has been assigned to produce a piece in tomorrow’s paper that probes some of the unanswered questions about how such an ethical lapse could have occurred. More stories will appear as new details become known.

Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli has recused himself from the editing process for these stories – a prudent move because he remains a central player. Brauchli has said he would never have approved the flier that was distributed to potential sponsors of an off-the-record dinner with newsmakers and journalists at the District home of publisher Katharine Weymouth. But questions remain about his involvement in discussions about the event. For that reason, taking the editing lead will be R. B. Brenner, a veteran editor who recently returned from an academic sabbatical at the University of Texas. He is now deputy editor on The Post’s Universal News Desk.

“We should be aggressively reporting this for as long as it takes,” Brenner said, adding that assurances have been given that reporters like Farhi will have access to the key players in the controversy. Farhi said this afternoon that those assurances have been honored.

Brenner noted that the intended approach here is similar to how The Post dealt with the worst scandal in journalistic history: In 1980 Janet Cooke, who had written a riveting profile of an eight-year-old heroin addict, was forced to resign and return the Pultizer Prize after admitting she fabricated the award-winning story. The Post should again be ahead of the pack, “reporting aggressively on this,” Brenner told me.

As The Post pursued the story today, managers moved to address the question of standards and ethical guidelines. Weymouth announced that Brauchli and Milton Coleman, who recently took a buyout after years as deputy managing editor, will “codify parameters for Post newsroom participation in live events.” At the same time, she tapped Post general counsel Eric Lieberman to “review recent events to make sure that our business processes are consistent with, and will not in any way compromise, our journalism.”

Coleman, who recently began working on contract as a senior editor, had already been assigned to undertake a broad review of the newsroom’s ethics and standards. The “salons” issue “will be the first thing we look at because it’s on the front burner,” he told me.

Weymouth and Brauchli also worked today to restore faith and boost spirits in the newsroom. They face a significant management challenge. Staffers, already battered by major newsroom restructuring and the loss of veteran talent through buyouts, are unsettled and demoralized by what everyone now concedes was a serious ethical breach.

Brauchli spent much of the day in separate department meetings with reporters and editors across the newsroom, apologizing for what had happened and taking questions on how it occurred. Weymouth was visible in the newsroom, talking with staffers and fielding questions, including those from the ombudsman.

A number of the questions focused on Charles Pelton, a key player in the controversy. A one-time newspaper journalist who started his own firm to stage meetings, Pelton was hired by The Post several months ago to create a new business that would offer Post-sponsored conferences, seminars and the now-canceled “salon” dinners at Weymouth’s home. He was responsible for distribution of the multicolor promotional flier soliciting sponsors. Weymouth and Brauchli both said they did not see before it was sent out, even though they were listed as “Hosts and Discussion Leaders.”

Many newsroom staffers wonder why Pelton is still employed. I posed the question to him by e-mail. “Best of luck with this,” he responded, referring me to his boss, Stephen P. Hills, the Post’s president and general manager. Hills declined to comment, saying that confidentiality needs to be respected in personnel matters.

Weymouth told me today that in addition to distributing the fliers, Pelton had sent e-mails under her name to potential guests for the “salon” dinners.

“They went through my e-mail,” she said of the guest invitations. “I was on vacation and I assumed the language of the invitations was fine and I didn’t need to review it.”
On the fliers, she said “I don’t usually review marketing materials, otherwise we wouldn’t get anything done here.”

As it did in the aftermath of the Janet Cooke affair, The Post must now restore faith with its readers. I've heard from a great many longtime subscribers who voiced a sense of betrayal and disappointment.

I thought Weymouth’s Sunday letter to readers was a good first step. It was important that she used the words “apologize” and “mistake,” and she was right to take responsibility since she is the publisher and CEO of The Washington Post.

Going forward, the key will be how she and other executives address the many questions that linger. They have said they disagreed with the way the “salons” were characterized in the flier. But to what degree did Pelton operate on his own? How could such a flawed plan have come this far? Why didn’t anyone stop to ask about the perception problem of having newsroom personnel participate, regardless of whether it was off-the-record?

Weymouth today described it as an idea that “moved too fast and it just got off track.” The resulting derailment caused a lot of damage.

The idea of sponsoring meetings and events grew out of the need for The Post, which is losing money, to find new revenue streams. Other news organizations have sponsored similar events. And The Post still intends to get in the game in a form that is ethically acceptable. Indeed, it remains one of six "Strategic Categories" listed in an internal Post document developed to guide the business into the future. Category No. 3 is "Develop Washington Post Briefings: A suite of offerings that gives a high-end business audience access and insight into Washington."

Perhaps, because it was considered such an important objective, it did not receive the necessary scrutiny. We know that Brauchli and others raised questions about where to draw the line on newsroom participation. Maybe one lesson is that if something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't.

Now, Post leaders need to find the best way to fully explain what went wrong and to restore faith with their staff and readers. As Post executives move forward, they might also keep in mind another document that was developed to guide The Post. It's labeled "Our Bedrock Principles," and the first one is: "To tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained."

By Andy Alexander  | July 6, 2009; 5:13 PM ET
 
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Comments

Mr. Alexander,
In the investigations and discussions ongoing within the Washington Post, is there any recognition that the fundamental problem was (is) not the "pay-to-play" aspect of the offer, but the very fact that the Washington Post was proposing to hold behind-closed-doors meetings with corporate CEOs and decision-making administration officials? Whether or not payment was taken, I see no way that a newspaper could host such sessions and also claim to be a neutral reporter on the issues and decisions.

sPh

Posted by: sphealey | July 6, 2009 8:50 PM | Report abuse

Ultimately, no investigation of/reporting on this controversy that is done by those beholden to Weymouth and Brauchli has any credibility; only an inquiry done by those outside the Post system (and indeed, outside of Washington DC and its environs) will be perceived as untainted by the overwhelming majority of critics and observers. (One suggestion -- Jay Rosen of NYU... although the question of why the ombudsman himself isn't leading the internal investigation deserves an answer as well.)

The first question that must be asked of Weymouth is "what did she think she was offering that was worth $25,000/night to the 'sponsors' of these salons?" Certainly, the cost of putting together a dinner in her home for 20 people is far less that $25K -- so what were the sponsors supposedly 'underwriting'?

Ultimately, the real issue here is how money buys influence in our nation's capital. What happened at the Post is merely a symptom of a far larger problem of access through cash. Unfortunately, the Post does a truly miserable job of covering this aspect of national politics. The Post is an essential element in the mainstream media's creation of the illusion that Congress and the White House are responsive to those who vote them into office, rather than those who pay for election campaigns.

(for instance, when was the last time that a Post article that mentioned Max Baucus on the health care reform issue noted that he'd received $1.8 million from the health care related industries in his 2008 re-election effort -- and that he had only token opposition. Or that Baucus received NINETY-ONE PERCENT of his campaign contributions from outside Montana? Does anyone believe that if Max Baucus had recieved millions from Americans who support single-payer health care, that single payer advocates would not have been arrested at his committee hearings instead of having a seat at the table?)

Posted by: Paul_Lukasiak1 | July 6, 2009 9:34 PM | Report abuse

As I noted in the other thread, the basic issue still stands...

It is funny that all of the docs on this demonstrate that the Post knows exactly what is so ethically sickening about this...and Weymouth and gang are making a buck on just that. "Getting a seat at the table..." etc...

Riddle me this...you think Weymouth and the Keystone Cops on her business staff will invite advocates of single payer to attend an event funded by Kaiser? Will they invite strong advocates of a public option? Kind of defeats the marketing, don't it? You think Kaiser would be too happy paying for "influencers" to be at the same table as such folks? To pay for them to "inform journalistic opinion"?

Just look at the legislators they did try and get for Kaiser. A right wing Dem opposed to the public options and Olympia Snowe, a moderate Rep who isn't a fan either.

You can insert similar groups to any issue. The deep pockets are on one side, and they ain't paying to allow their opponents to get a seat at the same table.

Posted by: janowicki | July 6, 2009 9:35 PM | Report abuse

In the hustle and bustle of making headlines, reporters are becoming more creative everyday. I don't know what to believe and have found it virtually impossible to believe anything from anyone in this modern age. So, what does one do?

Posted by: allenradwill | July 6, 2009 9:36 PM | Report abuse

Why do so many journalists continue to guess at the facts? Am I missing something here or can a third grade school reporter (yes, 3rd grade) make more sense out of the world today than the so called "experts"?

Posted by: gautographs | July 6, 2009 9:43 PM | Report abuse

To restore any semblance of integrity the Post needs to have this done by an outside resource with impeccable credentials. Otherwise, the results will be tainted.

What is even more troubling, the atmosphere within the organization is so desperate that this scheme could have ever been developed. Again, "best of luck with this".

Posted by: d1carter | July 6, 2009 9:52 PM | Report abuse

Pardon my cynicism, but the Post should have run Howard Kurtz's story on the front page, to begin with. Second, the publisher's apology should have run at the same time. However, it should have been written by an editor, instead of drafted by a lawyer. You cannot defend the fact that Ms Weymouth was planning a dinner at her house and knew who the guests and sponsors were. And you can't tell me nobody knew what was on the flier. As someone else put it, that has to take the Captain Renault award from the movie "Casablanca": "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here! [a croupier hands Renault a pile of money] Croupier: Your winnings, sir."
Give it up, folks, and make a clean apology, and try to regain some credibility. Otherwise, fold up your tent.

Posted by: PaulShultz1 | July 6, 2009 10:02 PM | Report abuse

you could start by begging Froomkin to come back

Posted by: patriot76 | July 6, 2009 10:29 PM | Report abuse

"Heads should roll"? Yeah, sure.

Weymouth she should provide a complete list of attendees at her "salons" over the last 12 months -- and a commitment to do so going forward.

You might argue it's her private house -- but it's obviously being used for Post business.

Of course, the real goal of the Post is to sweep this under the rug. You have no intention of eliminating the corruption that made this offer possible.

If Weymouth can't provide complete transparency -- including a look back -- then HER HEAD SHOULD ROLL.

Posted by: diesel_skins_ | July 6, 2009 10:38 PM | Report abuse

"Weymouth told me today that in addition to distributing the fliers, Pelton had sent e-mails under her name to potential guests for the “salon” dinners.

“They went through my e-mail,” she said of the guest invitations. “I was on vacation and I assumed the language of the invitations was fine and I didn’t need to review it.”
On the fliers, she said “I don’t usually review marketing materials, otherwise we wouldn’t get anything done here.”"

This Weymouth broad is out to lunch. She allowed somebody else to use her own e-mail account to invite guests to a "salon" at her own home, and now she's denying knowledge and responsibility for everything. "I didn't read the flyer" -- "I didn't read the invitations" -- "I was on vacation" -- That is NOT how anybody runs a national newspaper.

TOTAL FAIL.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | July 6, 2009 10:42 PM | Report abuse

Imagine if the Bush administration had been caught advertising weekend rates for the Lincoln Bedroom -- would you have been satisfied if the Bush administration had conducted an internal investigation and determined that it was just an honest mistake?

Well, you would if it was Clinton or Obama instead of Bush, but that's another story.

If you guys actually know any Republicans, why not ask one of them to conduct the investigation? Anyone know what Ken Starr is doing these days?

Posted by: diesel_skins_ | July 6, 2009 10:43 PM | Report abuse

Why is the ombsbudsman doing PR here? Aren't you supposed to be the voice of the reader, not the mouthpiece of the editor? You say the Post management has "acted properly" but provide no evidence. Why aren't you actually investigating this on behalf of readers instead of acting like Baghdad Bob?

Posted by: diesel_skins_ | July 6, 2009 10:49 PM | Report abuse

These corporate-sponsored "salons" are more widespread among mainstream press outlets (Wall St. Journal, The Economist, the Atlantic) than initially acknolwedged when the WashPo story broke. Even though polls show that more than 70% of Americans want a public option in health care reform, what are the chances that such a policy will pass, given MSM, corporate and political collusion in these little closed-door gatherings? I'll be watching MSM editorials re: health reform policy very warily.

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0709/24496.html

http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/2009/07/not_just_wapo_atlantics_corporate-sponsored_salons.php

Posted by: VirginiaMom | July 6, 2009 10:50 PM | Report abuse

This is a coverup, pure and simple, with Paul Farhi in the John Dean role.

"On the fliers, (Weymouth) said “I don’t usually review marketing materials, otherwise we wouldn’t get anything done here.”" The event was in your home. YOUR HOME. You don't read that? Yeah, sure, whatever.

It is weirdly comforting to know WaPo is no better than the Nixon Administration in getting their lies straight, keeping them straight, and practicing a cover up in general.

Posted by: gbooksdc | July 6, 2009 10:55 PM | Report abuse

Post the names of the underwriters, journalists, and people in government that come to future dos. I wonder who will show up?

Posted by: mcweber | July 6, 2009 11:08 PM | Report abuse

What is the PLAN for changing the WaPo BRAND?

In the NYT, July 4, article "A Publisher Stumbles Publicly at the Post", they wrote "perhaps Ms. Weymouth's notion came up a year ago when she, along with senior Web and print editorial staff members went to Harvard to RETHINK The Washington Post BRAND"

Would you please question these attendees to find out what they thought the OLD brand was (integrity, award-winning investigative reporting?) and what their REBRAND consists of.

The changes I've noticed are:
1. dumb-down and screw-up wapo.com
2. Hire 12 neo-cons to dominate the editorial pages
3. More celebrity and entertainment coverage; and factless stories about the Dems said this while the Reps said that; INSTEAD of researched FACTS, hard news and investigative reporting.
4. Where is Dana Priest?

Posted by: milwaukee1 | July 7, 2009 12:21 AM | Report abuse

I am sure everyone in the newsroom was comforted by Weymouth's presence. PLEASE. Best she resign now and let Uncle Donald put somebody with real experience in the job. These are tough times and I'm sure that Auntie Katherine would agree. You are not fit to fill her shoes even though you believe you can give dinner parties too.

Posted by: rnewmark | July 7, 2009 1:12 AM | Report abuse

I am sure everyone in the newsroom was comforted by Weymouth's presence. PLEASE. Best she resign now and let Uncle Donald put somebody with real experience in the job. These are tough times and I'm sure that Auntie Katherine would agree. You are not fit to fill her shoes even though you believe you can give dinner parties too.

Posted by: rnewmark | July 7, 2009 1:12 AM | Report abuse

The editorial side of your newspaper needs to be investigated as well. Many of the columns read as if they were paid for by somebody. That is the only thing that makes sense.

Posted by: SarahBB | July 7, 2009 9:14 AM | Report abuse

And yes, this is a lot like the Army investigating itself. All we are left to do is anticipate that they find no evidence of wrong doing except a few rogue, i.e. scapegoated foot soldiers.

Posted by: SarahBB | July 7, 2009 9:16 AM | Report abuse

SarahBB,

Come on. Next thing you are going to say is some officers should have gone down, when we all know it was just Lindy Englund acting alone in Abu Gharab. Yep, just one rogue private, acting secretly against the wishes of her horrified officers.

Posted by: janowicki | July 7, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

In a related move, Bernie Madoff has been named the Obama's Administration investment czar.

Posted by: Cornell1984 | July 7, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

Better. Still not there. A few points:

"Over the past few days, Post management has reacted properly."

Oh, come on. They reacted with the standard damage-control mix of half-truths and blame-shifting.

"Other news organizations have sponsored similar events."

Really? Closed-door, pay-to-play access to news staff, editors, and Obama officials -- what other news organizaztions sponsored events with those features?

"And The Post still intends to get in the game in a form that is ethically acceptable."

Lesson NOT learned. There is no ethically acceptable way to "get in the game."

Posted by: tresangelas | July 7, 2009 10:41 AM | Report abuse

There once was a man at the Post,
who realized the paper was toast,
he ignored the bias,
proving they're liars,
but credibility he did boast?

Posted by: Cornell1984 | July 7, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

"Short term, Post executives need to show the same degree of candor and transparency that the newspaper demands of the institutions and individuals it covers."

Puhleeze!

These people are the ones driving the boat, the figureheads of the institution. I fail to see how these expectations of the executives, in their roles, are any different from the long-term expectations you imposed upon the newsroom in the paragraph preceding.

I KNOW you aren't suggesting that the executives just straighten up and fly right long enough for this to blow over, and then get back to figuring out how to pull this off without getting caught again.

I lamented in the last thread on this subject the effects the Post suffered when they gave the MBAs free rein. Now you have one at the top. Ms Weymouth might benefit by attending a course at one of the business schools to which Michael Milken donated funds to finance courses in business ethics as part of his penance. While she's doing that, Mr. Brauchli could stand a refresher course in the ethics of journalism. The following semester, they could swap chairs in class.

That ought to provide them with food for thought as they gaze at their navels and ponder what they did that cost them their jobs.

Posted by: ScottinMaine | July 7, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

"The Post must now restore faith with its readers."

The "salons" controversy is the first real truth to come out about the upper management of the WaPo in a very long time. At least we now know how it intends to manufacture "news". Or at least the news the WaPo will be reporting. These people aren't fooling anyone and the Ombudsman can soft pedal all he likes but the WaPo is corrupt to the core.

At what point does a corpse realize it is dead? It'll take years for people to finally give up, but the WaPo is done.

Posted by: mdsinc | July 7, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

In his great autobiography A GOOD LIFE, Ben Bradlee -- writing about the membership American Society of Newspaper Editors (as of the late 80's) -- opined that many newspaper editors saw themselves proudly as members of the establishment.

What the new WP publisher decided to do, in return for money for her business, was about the same as what Katherine Graham did for free -- salons at her home. Is that a fair statement? Katherine Graham's autobiography makes pretty clear that she hosted the establishment. The difference with Ms Weymouth's plan, as reported, was to explicitly partner with the newsroom. Definitely a big goof, but everyone will get over it.

Posted by: MatterLaw | July 7, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

WaPo Ombud: Nothing to see here, move along
http://hotair.com/archives/2009/07/07/wapo-ombud-nothing-to-see-here-move-along/

Posted by: StewartIII | July 7, 2009 6:08 PM | Report abuse

Earlier I said the statement put out using Katherine Weymouth's name was "odd." Mostly, it showed Weymouth still had no idea why she is being criticized, no grasp of the ethics of a newspaper. But then the statement was probably written by a corporate lawyer, who would have no reason to know about ethics and newspapers. The only honorable thing for Weymouth to do at this point is resign.

Posted by: lowercaselarry | July 7, 2009 6:15 PM | Report abuse

Restore the Post's credibility?

Sell the paper and fire everyone in the top management layer, starting with Fred Hiatt.

Otherwise, good luck.

Posted by: rochrist | July 7, 2009 6:20 PM | Report abuse


The best way is to go straight.

Quit the cute and sustained neocon drive to be an Israeli mouthpiece.

The stink of deceit is all over this paper before word #1 is read.

HAVE YOU NOT READ the daily blitz of furious posters following the columns of such as Krauthammer, Cohen, Ignatius (he the great panel arbiter?) of Kristol, etc e tc and etc. The same phony reporters who write everything from Jerusalem.

The PC on which you so long have relied stopped the day Bernie was outted for his gig...

and you all still think the 300-4000-500 posts you get screaming mean you're increasingly popular. In a country that is in real trouble.

Posted by: whistling | July 7, 2009 6:42 PM | Report abuse

You know what's missing here? Q & A with the general public...But why should the WaPo care about the dirty filthy masses? It's only their money the Post wants.

Posted by: playa_brotha | July 7, 2009 7:24 PM | Report abuse

So, Weymouth’s excuse for sending email from her “personal” account on this subject, was that she lets other people send emails that are supposed to look like they came from her personally? Isn’t that just another form of lying by having someone else pass off as you in electronic form!?

I also enjoyed that you get a “no comment” and “confidentiality needs to be respected in personnel matters” about why Pelton is still here, but they felt it O.K. to leak Froomkins salary to everyone in that situation. The Post must think it’s readers are even dumber than it’s editors.

Posted by: TheCaptainDamnIt | July 8, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

There are two major scandals here: the "pay-to-play" scandal, and the cozy relationship between the "watchdog press" and the people it is supposed to be covering.

With regards to the latter, even if these "collegial" salons had been free, the Post is essentially admitting that "bi-partisan" Washington is more concerned with greasing the wheels of power behind closed doors than it is with quaint notions of transparency and accountability... and the Washington Post is simply an enabler, a fawning courtier that is more concerned with maintaining "access" to the plutocrats in Washington than it is with actual reporting or journalistic integrity.

The lesson, it seems, is that the Washington Post is tired of merely worshiping at the feet of the rich and powerful -it wants a piece of the action.

Posted by: Purplestatevoter | July 8, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

We are still waiting for the Post to admit that Pay-to-Play is wrong. Buying politicians dinners to tell you how they want to be covered is wrong (Tom Davis (R-VA) made a career out of that).

Do you want your reporters to understand their beats and sources? Then hire enough journalists - not novelists and not authors - to do some old-fashioned shoe leather reporting. And hire back enough editors with experience and time to edit (that last Ombuds column that we have to get used to errors under Weymouth is as wack as the column about how "salons" are acceptable). Short on funds to hire? Use the money from these dinners!

Posted by: achamblee | July 8, 2009 11:03 PM | Report abuse

The Post has hidden this story in its back pages. It needs to place the story on the front page where it belongs - beginning with printing the FULL TEXT of the flier on the front page for transparency's sake. Also, I note that not a single letter to the editor has been published in the hard copy paper - despite the hundreds of comments that have been posted on the story on the web site. Surely, someone must have written a letter or two. Does the Post have a policy of not publishing letters to the editor on this subject?

Posted by: jburnetti | July 9, 2009 6:00 PM | Report abuse

You should also police your columnists more closely -- especially Will and Krauthammer.

Posted by: expandingabroad | July 10, 2009 4:10 AM | Report abuse

Conventional analysis sees passing storms as permanent and is blind to the transparency of changes that are taking place in view of all. The rat race'll start again. It always does. Don't go and get too puritanical or anything like that.

Posted by: Dermitt | July 10, 2009 11:10 AM | Report abuse

Here's an idea that will restore my trust on this 2nd coming of the Washington Times: fire Fred Hiatt, Krauthammer, and Gerson.

Posted by: alarico | July 11, 2009 8:37 PM | Report abuse

The true colors of this once-great paper were revealed with the firing of Dan Froomkin, the only honest man in a sea of liars. Cowards, butt-polishers, chicken-hawks and war criminals now firmly control this right-wing echo chamber, which is becoming more irrelevant by the day. I won't be shedding any tears on the day I hear that the Washington Post has cancelled all of its print editions due to lack of readership. The ship is sinking...

Posted by: jerkhoff | July 13, 2009 6:14 PM | Report abuse

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