Washington Postgate

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Journalistas in Washington and beyond the Beltway on Thursday were chortling over the news–brought to you by Politico–that the Watergate-famed Washington Post had cooked up a plan to hold private salons, where lobbyists and association heads could pay mucho bucks (up to $250,000) to wine and dine (or tea and snack) with Obama administration officials, lawmakers, and Post editors and reporters.

Selling access! Both anti-MSMers and non-Post MSMers jumped on Washington’s big-gun newspaper for this violation of journalistic probity. And before the story could make the evening news, publisher Katharine Weymouth had strangled this for-profit salon in its crib, claiming the paper’s marketing department had gone overboard. She noted that the paper had indeed decided to hold a series of dinners, but that the flier promoting the pay-to-sup salons had not been vetted by her or the newsroom. It does sound to me like the marketing guys and gals might have been too exuberant. No newspaper exec or editor in his or her right mind would have greenlighted the project described in that flier.

Still, there’s nothing like kicking a newspaper when it’s down. At the White House press briefing room, there was much eye-rolling and amusement over the caper. Journalists there joked with Washington Post correspondent Michael Shear about paying five bucks to have coffee with him. (All day long, Washington Post reporters were expressing their own outrage to friends and associates.)

When it was Shear’s turn to ask a question of press secretary Robert Gibbs–he said he wanted to ask about health care, as other journalists giggled in anticipation–Gibbs could not refrain. He quipped, “the counsel’s office has advised me to ask Mike exactly how much each of these questions will cost me.” Pretty funny. But Shear took his lumps for his team well and pressed ahead with his queries. (What were they? Who was paying attention to that?) 

Next up for questioning came Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times. And what was the most pressing issue of the day for the newspaper of record? The troops pull-back in Iraq? The opposition in Iran? North Korea missile launches? The god-awful job loss numbers? No, it was that embarrassing story about the Washington Post. Zeleny asked if any White House officials had been solicited by the Post to be special guests at these salons. Gibbs said not that he was aware of any WHite House aides who had been invited, but the press secretary indicated that administration officials at other agencies might have been roped in by the Post. He said he could check on that. So far, the White House has not released any statements expanding on his answer.

What does all this mean? Probably not much. It’s obvious that drenched-in-red-ink newspapers are trying to find new revenue streams. The marketeers of the Post just went a wee bit too far. It’s not as if they were trying to be sneaky about it. After all, the story emerged because the business side of the Post was circulating a flier promoting the salons. And as soon as this terrible idea became public, it was killed. But as one somber New York Times reporter told me, this episode is a sign that at all major newspapers–including his own–the marketing people are in ascendance. That’s natural, considering the state of newspapers, and, on one level, those of us who enjoy and support papers like the Times and the Post (even though they can be quite aggravating at times) ought to be rooting for the marketing teams. But this tale is a reminder that the marketing of journalism can be a two-edged sword. Today, a lot of media folks eagerly grabbed that sword and slashed away at the Post.

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