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Weymouth and Brauchli Interviews

By Andy Alexander

In the aftermath of the controversy surrounding The Post’s ill-conceived plan to sell sponsorships of off-the-record “salon” dinners, publisher Katharine Weymouth and executive editor Marcus Brauchli separately sat down for interviews with me. Here are excerpts from both.

INTERVIEW WITH WEYMOUTH

On whether anyone in Post senior management had an advance look at the flier that sought underwriters for a dinner at her home and promised a non-confrontational “news-driven and off-the-record conversation” involving newsroom personnel. The flier was prepared by Charles Pelton, who joined The Post in mid-May as general manager of a new Washington Post conferences and events business.

WEYMOUTH: “Not to the best of my knowledge. I want to be very clear. We provide our – we call them “Business Unit Owners” – tremendous autonomy. I think that is a good thing. [Pelton] was a very senior level executive, running his own business with 12 years of experience doing conferences, with a background as a journalist. We had talked about the importance of our newsroom integrity. He understood that. He understood he needed to work very closely with the newsroom to make sure that everything we did was compliant with our standards. It is completely normal for a Business Unit head to... create marketing material, an invitation like that, and nobody vets it.”

On whether anyone in The Post newsroom raised concerns about plans for the salon dinners.

WEYMOUTH: “I’m sure people in the newsroom and on the business side wish that they had said: ‘Yes, you know, this is not what we should be doing.’ But they didn’t. So I think it’s not that constructive to keep beating ourselves over the head and saying: ‘Why didn’t we flag it.’ We didn’t flag it.... After the fact, one person came to me and said: ‘I thought this was a bad idea all around.’ And I said: ‘You cannot come to me now and say that you thought this was a bad idea.’ I said ‘It is your job to raise objections at the time so we can have a discussion about it.’ So from my perspective, we made an error. And you know what, we’ll make more errors. And I don’t want us to be so burned by this that we become paralyzed. I don’t think it’s constructive to keep beating ourselves over the head and saying ‘Why didn’t someone raise a red flag.’ To the best of my knowledge, none of us did and we all wish we had.”

On whether The Post’s top managers have been so fixated on improving the newspaper’s financial condition that they let their guard down on enforcing ethical standards.

WEYMOUTH: “No. I don’t think it’s part of the problem. I think our standards are as rigid as they’ve ever been. I made a terrible mistake in this instance. But it’s not because I’m trying to move the bar with what our standards are. Our journalistic integrity comes first and foremost. I made a mistake that compromised that in this instance. As best I can, I will not do that again. I think everybody is on high red alert. It would be hard to make a mistake like this again, and I think that’s a good thing. But the standard has not changed.”

On what needs to be done to restore faith with readers who are upset by the ethical lapse.

WEYMOUTH: “I think the most important thing we need to do is continue to do great journalism every single day. I think the only good news in this is that I don’t think this has hurt our journalism or our product. We didn’t hold the dinner, which is good, because it got flagged ahead of time. Obviously, damage was done, but at least we didn’t hold the dinner or multiple dinners. We’ve got to focus on doing great journalism every day. And secondly, the newsroom will work on putting into writing standards that are appropriate that will govern journalists’ participation in any live events that we pursue.”

INTERVIEW WITH BRAUCHLI

On Charles Pelton and the flier.

BRAUCHLI: “He’s a very nice guy. He’s enthusiastic. He’s smart. He was organized. He has a lot of good ideas on how conferences and events should work. He has a lot of experience in this area. I think this went off track, in this flier he produced. But the fundamental problem was not the flier. It was the idea.”

On his discussions with Pelton about whether the planned “salon” dinners should have been on the record.

BRAUCHLI: “I think there was a sense that these things, in order to succeed, (that) there needed to be a sense that they were confidential. And at that point, I should have, rather than try to lay down a lot of conditions and parameters to make it acceptable for the news department, I should have said: ‘No, that’s wrong. Our role is to shine a bright light on dark corners, and not to create new dark corners.’”

On missed opportunities to kill the idea of “salon” dinners.

BRAUCHLI: “The opportunities began when the conversation first came up about salon dinners, whenever that took place. The opportunity continued when the decision was made to hire Charles. I don’t know if it was raised in the course of his interviews. But the idea clearly predated him, before his hiring, and we could have stopped it at any point along the way and we didn’t. [At] any point someone might have thought to say ‘We shouldn’t be doing this.’ And someone should have thought to say we shouldn’t be doing that. But the fact is the no one did.”

On the decision to allow the newsroom to participate in a Post-organized event that wasn’t on the record.

BRAUCHLI: ”It was a flawed idea from the start... because for the newsroom to participate in something that was on background or off the record, with sponsors, on a subject of wide importance, was a mistake.”

On whether the focus on finding new revenue streams for The Post might have caused managers to let down their ethical guard.

BRAUCHLI: “I don’t think that’s fair. When I found myself applying conditions and parameters, I should have realized I as in a swamp and got out. I made a mistake in believing that this particular structure was something we should do. It wasn’t something we should have done. But there have been many instances where there have been business opportunities that would be inconsistent with our journalistic principles that we have turned down. We will continue to hew to our principles and turn down business opportunities if they are inconsistent with our values. In this instance, it took us altogether too long to see how this was inconsistent. But in the end, when it was stark and in front of us, we realized how incompatible this was with our values and we pulled out.... There is no question that in this time if great upheaval in our industry, more and more ideas get tossed around, and what requires of us is greater vigilance, not reduced vigilance.”

On what needs to be done to restore faith with readers who might believe The Post is no longer committed to high ethical standards.

BRAUCHLI: “That’s easy. Our journalism, day in and day out, shows our commitment to our values. And it was, and is, unaffected by this episode. We have never done anything in our newspaper or on our Web site that is inconsistent with these values. By doing good journalism day in and day out, we will demonstrate to our audience, and anyone who cares to pay attention, that we are as principled and as committed to our core values as we have ever been. And it has been true every day of this contretemps, and it will be true going forward.”

By Andy Alexander  | July 10, 2009; 9:29 PM ET
 
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Comments

The first step in crisis resolution is to admit that you have a crisis. Reading this article leaves one with the impression and those who should have immediately seen the problems simply didn’t. And that speaks volumes regarding their mindset. The comments about the Post’s high standards stand in stark contrast to what appears in the paper, most notably on the Opinions page, virtually every day.

Posted by: Schweg | July 11, 2009 8:47 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Schweg. Brauchli and Weymouth are VERY deep in denial about how this looks to readers. Weymouth keeps on repeating, oh, we just need to continue "great journalism." Something tells me that she has chirpy, perky smile on her face when she says that. Other than being Katherine Graham's relative, it's obvious she has none of the skills needed to be in her position.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | July 11, 2009 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Alexander,
Out of curosity, does anyone at the Washington Post actually read these comments? Back around 1999 or so I found the "Cluetrain Manifesto" people to be quite obnoxious, but they did make a few good points. One of which was that the Internet allows customers to express themselves to suppliers **and to each other** for the first time, and the organizations that don't recognize and deal with that are in big trouble. Do the executives at the WaPo understand that?

And just for the record, the root problem is NOT the fees. The fees brought this issue to the surface, which was good. But the real root of the problem is that the WaPo was proposing to hold secret, off-the-record "salons" with large corporate interests and the members of the government (Administration and Congress) who "really get it done". In other words, secret non-public decision-making sessions to which mere Citizens would have no visibility and no say.

sPh

Posted by: sphealey | July 11, 2009 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Those that claim to have high standards and journalistic integrity, but do not display them as decisions are made, is a false claim. When these standards exist they are readily visible.

Posted by: d1carter | July 11, 2009 10:43 AM | Report abuse

The reason Washington Post did not see this as a problem at the beginning is because they experience the "tingling sensations run up their legs" when they thought how much money they could make from this sordid affair. As for good journalism, I guess they mean good "propagandalism" for Obama could get them the TARP money.

Posted by: davevu | July 11, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Am I missing something here? Who at the White House was coming and who was the contact between the Washington Post and the White House who agreed to this forum?

Posted by: miboard157 | July 11, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Weymouth and Mr. Brauchli are clearly decent people who would not knowingly do anything unethical.

The problem is they are also clearly not, by a long shot, sufficiently steeped in the ethical requirements of journalism to effectively hold the positions they do.

They can mouth all the platitudes they want but this stain will NEVER be removed from their escutcheon.

They should be removed and replaced.

Dave Jewell
Philadelphia, PA

Posted by: dajewell | July 11, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Katherine says "It is completely normal for a Business Unit head to... create marketing material, an invitation like that, and nobody vets it.”"

Katherine is lying; still. Nobody vets it, even when your own home is being offered as the venue? Really, Katherine?

Katherine says "‘You cannot come to me now and say that you thought this was a bad idea.’ I said ‘It is your job to raise objections at the time so we can have a discussion about it.’ So from my perspective, we made an error."

What about her own sense of propriety,her own concept of newspaper's integrity? If she has no idea of these, she has no business of heading the newspaper, notwithstanding the fact that she is a niece of her aunt.

Katherine says "So from my perspective, we made an error. And you know what, we’ll make more errors."

Thanks for the assurance, Katherine!

Katherine says "I made a terrible mistake in this instance."

This is universally agreed upon. The question is, do you use Pelton as a scapegoat, or take your lumps as the big girl you think yourself to be? Perhaps advertising was your niche, and you shouldn't have been dragged out of there.

Posted by: pKrishna43 | July 12, 2009 12:00 AM | Report abuse

Dear Sir:
I have a great deal of difficulty with the responses Ms. Weymouth made in your interview.
Here is a summary of my concerns:

1)"We had talked about the importance of our newsroom integrity."

This says nothing about what standard was expected from Pelton and others in this scheme. This is important because this discussion was clearly inadequate to protect the Post and/or encouraged the event exactly as planned. I think it is both.

2)"It is completely normal for a Business Unit head to... create marketing material, an invitation like that, and nobody vets it."

I don't know what events (with national leaders attending) could be planned in the home of a CEO of any company that required a prior discussion on "integrity" yet would not be vetted in advance. This is not credible at all except from a total rookie leader.

3)"I’m sure people in the newsroom and on the business side wish that they had said: ‘Yes, you know, this is not what we should be doing.’ But they didn’t."

This is plainly shocking and not credible at all. What kind of introduction did Weymouth give to this effort that a newspaper of your standing would just clam up. I am assuming there was a standard in place prior to Weymouth that made this scheme untenable to even a cursory reviewer. I may be wrong.

4)"After the fact, one person came to me and said: ‘I thought this was a bad idea all around.’ And I said: ‘You cannot come to me now and say that you thought this was a bad idea.’ I said ‘It is your job to raise objections at the time so we can have a discussion about it."

One??? Is that all the staff that had the nerve to challenge Weymouth on something she approved that seriously tarred the newspaper? The situation is worse than I thought. She may be feared but clearly not respected.

Is her response one that encourages future feedback, takes responsibility for her role and sets the standard for her leadership?

5)"And I don’t want us to be so burned by this that we become paralyzed."

I don't think there is a danger of paralysis but there is the fear that she learned the wrong lesson and is clearly annoyed about being called to answer for something so public.

6)a - "But the standard has not changed."


6)b - "And secondly, the newsroom will work on putting into writing standards that are appropriate that will govern journalists’ participation in any live events that we pursue."

I have trouble believing 6a exists if 6b is necessary. It sounds like a passing of the buck to the newsroom on something that needs to stay on Ms Weymouth's conscience and in her office.

Posted by: BobSanderson | July 12, 2009 4:02 AM | Report abuse

both Weymouth and Brauchli attempted to use the excuse that "no one objected" -- as if its the responsibility of others to police the ethics of the publisher and executive editor. But with the exception of the Ombudsman, every single Post employee is beholden to Weymouth and/or Brauchli, and questioning the ethics of the top bosses is never good for job security.

Brauchli comes closest to being honest with himself (and us) when he acknowledges that the entire concept of the salons was ethically unsound because it creates "new dark holes" rather than illuminating existing holes. The problem is that Brauchli cannot acknowledge that the Post is all about the "dark holes" -- its reliance upon agenda-driven access journalism and anonymous sourcing for much of its reporting creates as many "new dark holes" as it exposes.

It is the dominance of "access journalism" in the Post that made Brauchli's ethical blindness (and the Salon debacle itself) not merely possible, but inevitable, because "access journalism" is itself a corruption of journalistic ethics.

Posted by: Paul_Lukasiak1 | July 12, 2009 7:52 AM | Report abuse

the Post's June 19 newsletter, available to staffers in all departments, featured a large interview with Mr Pelton who spelled out the whole salon plan.

Posted by: Roxcy21 | July 12, 2009 5:09 PM | Report abuse

The questions here as well as the responses to them are wall-to-wall smoke and mirrors--total BS. In two years I will read about how Ms. Weymouth and her band of self-serving fat-cats wrecked the WaPo. As for myself, I am changing my home page from WaPo to the NY Times--and I'm not looking back. I will go to the blogs for my information I cannot find at the NYT.

Posted by: 0nl00k3r | July 12, 2009 10:00 PM | Report abuse

While Mrs. Weymouth's newfound commitment to journalistic standards is laudable, her remarks show that it is her management qualities that remain to be a core of the problem. This is evident in this quote:

"So I think it’s not that constructive to keep beating ourselves over the head and saying: ‘Why didn’t we flag it.’ We didn’t flag it.... After the fact, one person came to me and said: ‘I thought this was a bad idea all around.’ And I said: ‘You cannot come to me now and say that you thought this was a bad idea.’ I said ‘It is your job to raise objections at the time so we can have a discussion about it.’"

Excuse me pls, investigating the issue, finding the shortcomings that led to the false decisions is "not that constructive"? Weymouth seems to think that this is a singular lapse of good judgement, despite all the evidence the ombudsman collected that shows this is a systemic failure! And her reaction will almost assure this will happen again: Instead of asking her staffers why they didn't bring up the criticism in time, what held them back, she spreads the (correct?) perception she doesn't want to hear about that. This will nib any serious discussion in the bud, and is totally counterproductive for preventing future scandals.

And even though Brauchli is much more forthcoming in admitting that the whole idea, not only the realisation, was misguided from the very start, he also falls short of noticing that everybody involved behaved in the same ignorant manner. The problem obviously runs much deeper than the shallow explanation of a coincidence of several individuals all making the same error in judgment.

And so, the remedy that both Weymouth and Brauchli advocate, to get over it by "doing good journalism day in and day out" is too much of business as usual to achieve positive results. Instead, they should listen to those distinguished editors that Mr. Alexander interviewed. They should endorse the advice to overcome the slow corruption of editors and journalists and the negative image the Post has for many readers now by a campaign for journalistic standards and for quality journalims. This could be the fresh start the paper needs now. It's sad to see that neither the publisher nor the main editor see this urgent necessity. It sure looks like the bad management will continue, and if this is true, then it would be better for the Post if both Weymouth and Brauchli would resign. Their kind of leadership isn't likely to assure the survival of the company. Let's hope Mr. Graham is able to draw the inevitable conclusions from this!

Posted by: Gray62 | July 13, 2009 4:23 AM | Report abuse

In December of 1929 it was a dinner and "An Evening with Doctor Franklin". This resulted in "Page Doctor Franklin", which ran in the Post as well as other newspapers. When an idea is a lemon, all you can do is make lemonade kids. Make a stand, it won't be a last stand and it won't be the first. Don't forget sugar!

High Society and romance. “Mr. Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking people to stay with him.” The Young Visitors by Daisy Ashford, English child author (1881-1972)

Posted by: Dermitt | July 13, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

"Good journalism" is not just a painkiller after a bruising mistake; it's the essential purpose of The Post. In my view, the largest and most damaging departures from that standard have been on the local level. The Post simply does not cover its diverse, sprawling community adequately any more.

Instead of courting the powerful, Ms. Weymouth and Mr. Brauchli should do as Don Graham did some years ago: set up a series of public meetings throughout the metro DC area to invite complaints and suggestions from their current, one-time and perhaps future readers. If they venture out, they'll find that many local officials and activists have no contact with Post reporters and don't know who's supposed to be covering their communities. They'll hear about many stories and trends that merit incisive coverage. They'll learn that residents relish opinions and commentary, yes, but also want facts and timely information about what's going on. Then they can figure out how to revitalize metro reporting and make The Post more relevant to those who don't dwell exclusively in downtown DC.

Posted by: cjohnson1 | July 13, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Those were the right questions, but the responses -- holy cow!

Brauchli, at least, in hindsight, seems to see this scandal for what it is.

But Weymouth... Words fail me. She hasn't got a clue.

Good of you to post this, Mr. Alexander.

Posted by: tresangelas | July 15, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

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