Weymouth and Brauchli Interviews
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.”
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