There's no question journalistic principles are under constant assault as media organizations seek novel responses to unprecedented economic pressures. But it's possible the self-appointed guardians of journalistic ethics have their outrage meters set a hair too high.
Just look at the feeding frenzy that ensued after Politico exposed plans by The Washington Post to host an off-the-record dinner at which paying sponsors would be free to mingle with government officials, lobbyists and Post reporters.
Without a doubt, the dinner, as described in a flier produced by the paper's marketing department, was a bad idea. It violated the Post's standards in several ways: by promising that the atmosphere would be non-confrontational and "collegial," by assuring participants that the proceedings would be off the record, and by holding out the possibility of a single sponsor underwriting the entire event.
But it's not as though the Post was obstinate about acknowledging all this. Within hours of Politico's report, the paper had called off the dinner, with executive editor Marcus Brauchli saying it was "absolutely impossible" that anyone from the newsroom could participate in what looked for all the world like a case of pay for access. The paper's own ombudsman quickly weighed in, calling the episode a "PR disaster." As details about the fiasco trickled out, a familiar picture emerged of an overzealous business side briefly putting one past a distracted, inattentive newsroom. That's how publisher Katharine Weymouth characterized it in her apology to readers yesterday, saying that the flier in question hadn't been vetted by the proper editorial leaders.
But that explanation wasn't enough to forestall a barrage of criticism directed at the Post in general and Weymouth in particular. The New York Times was especially unsparing, weighing in again and again with what came to resemble unseemly schadenfreude. You'd think the Times, which has hit a journalistic speedbump or two in its day, might be a little more cautious about throwing stones.
The episode certainly raises some uncomfortable questions. Why, for instance, did Weymouth use (or allow someone to use) her personal email account to send out invitations to an event she wasn't up to speed on? Is Brauchli, who allowed himself to be forced out of The Wall Street Journal by Rupert Murdoch despite an editorial-independence agreement that should've protected him, a bit too pliant when it comes to dealing with owners? But in the absence of a smoking gun proving that Weymouth is equivocating about what happened (as some have suggested), we have little choice but to accept her account. And that account is one of a media organization that, having suffered an understandable lapse of journalistic vigilance, made immediate and unambiguous amends. What more, exactly, are its critics asking for?
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