The Only Thing The Washington Post Did Wrong Was Apologize
Andrew Alexander, the ombudsman at The Washington Post, had a lengthy and detailed column yesterday about what he termed the "sponsorship scandal" at the paper. His opening line says everything you need to know about where he stands: "The Washington Post's ill-fated plan to sell sponsorships of off-the-record 'salons' was an ethical lapse of monumental proportions."
I disagree as strongly as possible. The only thing the Washington Post really did that was wrong is that it apologized.
Other news outlets have been doing things like the Post was planning to do for years. In some cases they charge directly for meetings and conferences. In other cases they charge indirectly, as when they invite advertisers to mingle with senior staff over chardonnay and scallops wrapped in bacon. At least one major publication sponsors cruises where readers pay to mingle for several days with big name conservatives, reporters, and editors. The New York Times proudly arranges for discussions with media and entertainment types and runs full-page ads promoting it. Major Washington-based publications hold seminars hosted by one or more of their crack reporters or editors and get corporate sponsorships to make sure they're profitable. They advertise the fact that their reporters and editors will be speaking because they know that will help draw a paying crowd.
And then there are the big Washington dinners where virtually every news outlet buys one or more tables and competes for the biggest names from Capital Hill and the White House to sit with reporters, editors, and...yes...advertisers.
(Question: What's the difference between paying $25,000 for an ad and then being invited to sit at a table at a hotel ballroom with editors and congressional leaders, and paying $25,000 to sit at a table in with those same editors and leadership at the publisher's home?)
This same type of outrage that Andrews expressed in his column was expressed more than a decade ago when some papers began to run ads on their front pages. Critics said that it would affect editorial content and was a scandal.
Now, of course, many more newspapers run front-page ads; website and blogs proudly sell banner ads on their landing pages; associations, alliances, and corporations sponsor online news alerts even though they have an interest in the subject matter to which you're being alerted; and you're forced to watch a video ad before getting to the content you want on many news websites.
There was also the case of the Fox talk show host (I think it was Hannity) who openly appeared at Republican fundraisers. He refused to apologize, saying that he was not a political eunuch and didn't see any problem with his being partisan.
My bottom line is that The Washington Post didn't do anything wrong. It has assets -- connections and a staff that people want to meet -- that it wasn't using adequately to generate revenues. Why not put them to work and improve the paper's profitability in the process?
My question for all those who, like Andrews, have said that what The Post did was unethical, is whether you think the news coverage would have been tainted because of the salons. My strong suspicion is that the answer would be have been an overwhelming "no."
And if that's the case, this should not have been an issue and the Post should have moved ahead with the dinners as planned.
Wait, There's More. Here's Matthew Yglesias' take on the Andrews column.