Restoring The Post's Credibility With Readers -- and Staff
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."
| July 6, 2009; 5:13 PM ET
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