July 2009 Ethics Dunces

The Washington Post

Here’s the problem: money. When money gets tight, that’s when we find out whose ethical values are real and whose are just window dressing.

The cracks in journalism’s studied facade of virtue have been appearing with some frequency lately, as the internet, with its ethical values barely formed, has been taking big chunks out of the mainstream media’s markets. Thus the Associated Press now allows its reporters to editorialize while relaying the facts: they call it “responsibility journalism,” though it used to be called “slanting the news.” CNN and MSNBC and Fox permit and even encourage its reporters to be openly biased toward one ideological position or another. This is just pandering to the market, however; it is unseemly and unprofessional, but at least it is mostly out in the open.

The Washington Post is supposed to be special. The paper has a generally well-earned reputation for fairness and objectivity, and even though it has held a detectable pro-Democrat tilt for several decades, it tries to be objective. While the erstwhile #1 paper in America, the New York Times, morphed into a fully-committed, unapologetic anti-Bush, anti-GOP propaganda organ in recent years, the Post managed to balance its coverage, occasionally getting attacked by the Left as a result. So it was both upsetting and telling that the Washington Post’s publisher strolled into an ethical fiasco that immediately called into question the paper’s objectivity, independence, fairness, and future.

The website Politico revealed that The Post was planning private, off-the-record dinners at the home of publisher Katharine Weymouth and seeking sponsors to pay $25,000 to underwrite each session. The pitch: an opportunity for corporate interests to take part in “salon-style discussions” with politicians and journalists, off the record, to get the ear of policy-makers and opinion makers. A marketing flier promoted the first event as a "non-confrontational" opportunity to influence those in power. Meanwhile, the people in power, Obama officials involved in health care reform, were also being invited to participate. The obvious appeal for them: be nice to the Post, and it will be more likely to be nice in return.

Weymouth killed the dinners after the Post’s flier’s language was leaked, saying that it misrepresented the Post’s intent. Maybe. The real question is how a program like this could have even been considered. A Washington, D.C. paper that is supposed to provide an unbiased eye on the wealthy and powerful brings the wealthy and the powerful together, promises secrecy, and collects money in the process. What’s wrong with this picture? A conflict of interest, perhaps? A breach of integrity? A failure of public trust? The appearance of impropriety? What about hypocrisy? The Post’s "Standards and Ethics" guidelines stress the importance of newsroom neutrality, saying, "This newspaper is pledged to avoid conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest, wherever and whenever possible” and is committed “to disclosing to its readers the sources of the information in its stories to the maximum possible extent."

It left out the proviso, “unless the money is good enough, and then we don’t care.”

After the revelation, Post executives, writers and reporters began an orgy of self-flagellation and apologies. The obligatory investigation is underway. Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote a scathing report that called the aborted plan “an ethical lapse of monumental proportions,” which is about right. He detailed the process by which the dinners were approved, but he didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, satisfactorily explain why such a plan would ever be considered at all if the Post culture took its own stated principles seriously. The major defense, if you can call it that, floating out of the paper was that “other publications” had held such dinners (and made big bucks.) But the publication they cited was The Atlantic, which is 1) a slick opinion magazine in the spirit of Vanity Fair, Harpers, Esquire and others, and not a primary news source; 2) not expected to hold to the highest journalistic standards, since it never has, and 3) about as much like the Washington Post as Prevention Magazine is like the Journal of the American Medical Association. Ever see a reporter from The Atlantic at a presidential press conference? Neither have I.

The pressure on the newspaper industry to compromise its principles in the struggle for survival will only become greater. The sad spectacle of the network news departments abandoning integrity and fairness when times got tough is likely to be repeated in the newspaper business, if the best and the brightest of the breed has no more sensitivity to ethics than the Post displayed with Weymouth’s pay-to-play scheme.




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