Media Blog

Some Good Observations on the Washington Post Pay-for-Access Scandal

In the WSJ, Bert Gall and Steve Simpson write on the media free-speech double standard:

Our nation’s capital is abuzz over the Washington Post’s recent indiscretion. The newspaper planned to host a now-canceled salon at the home of Katharine Weymouth, the Post’s publisher. For $25,000, lobbyists and corporate executives would be granted exclusive access to members of the Obama administration, Congress, and Post journalists.

Pundits have condemned the Post for acting as an influence peddler. But other news publications routinely host similar events. This shouldn’t come as a shock. Media corporations have always had the privilege of influencing politics without the restrictions — like campaign finance laws — that other corporations face. […]

So while this episode has been treated as a scandal of journalistic ethics, it is really about double standards. When other business corporations attempt to influence politics — by running political ads during elections — editorial boards rush to condemn the corporations for “buying” elections or “unduly” influencing candidates. We should be concerned, the boards say, because those corporations have too much influence over the political debate. The public needs strict campaign finance laws to protect it from that influence.

The New York Times recently featured an editorial about the Supreme Court’s current major campaign finance case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2009). The editorial counseled the high court against overturning precedent, referring to Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990). That case allows the government to prevent corporations from spending money on electoral advocacy. According to the Times, eliminating the government’s power to ban corporate political speech “would be a disaster for democracy.”

But if excessive influence is a reason to censor the speech of every other kind of corporation, then it is also a reason to censor the speech of media corporations. After all, the media spend millions of dollars each year on news stories about candidates and editorials endorsing them. This press is worth a lot. For example, the Washington Post’s endorsement of Creigh Deeds is widely credited as the biggest factor in his rise from obscurity to victory in Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary this year.

So where are the editorials calling for limits on the amounts of “money” — in the form of coverage and editorials — media companies devote to candidates?

Of course, you’ll hear no such thing from the nation’s newspapers and media outlets. Media companies are exempt from campaign finance laws. Many in the press think that the First Amendment entitles them to special protections that don’t apply to anyone else.

And the Washington Post’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, unloaded on the paper. An excerpt:

The Washington Post’s ill-fated plan to sell sponsorships of off-the-record “salons” was an ethical lapse of monumental proportions.

Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli have now taken full responsibility for what was envisioned as a series of 11 intimate dinners to discuss public policy issues. For a fee of up to $25,000, underwriters were guaranteed a seat at the table with lawmakers, administration officials, think tank experts, business leaders and the heads of associations. Promotional materials said Weymouth, Brauchli and at least one Post reporter would serve as “Hosts and Discussion Leaders” for an evening of spirited but civil dialogue.

While Brauchli and Weymouth say they should have realized long ago that the plan was flawed, internal e-mails and interviews show questions about ethics were raised with both of them months ago. They also show that blame runs deeper. Beneath Brauchli and Weymouth, three of the most senior newsroom managers received an e-mail with details of the plan.

And<a href="http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ombudsman-blog/2009/07/salon_interview_excerpts_from.html“> here are excerpts of the interviews he had with the Post’s publisher and executive editor.

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