Howie Kurtz’s Latest Story: Weymouth Defends Pay2Play Scheme

picture-115.pngHowie Kurtz worked all day yesterday trying to come up with a narrative that would make the WaPo’s Pay2Play scheme look less damning. His latest effort is notable for several reasons:

  • He killed the anonymous quotations from Weymouth and Brauchli
  • With those anonymous quotes, he also killed any description of what the Pay2Play dinners were supposed to be
  • He let Weymouth spend 356 words claiming "everyone does it"
  • He gave a list of the planned attendees

Nevertheless, the bottom line of the story is that Katharine Weymouth still appears to defend the concept of Pay2Play in her living room.

Killing the anonymous quotations from Weymouth and Brauchli

Perhaps Howie killed the anonymous quotes because, in an article trying to defend the WaPo’s "journalistic integrity" and "integrity of the newsroom" it just looked bad to grant the WaPo’s Publisher and Executive Editor anonymity to blame another employee and make vague claims about what the real intent here was. Perhaps Howie killed those quotes because I was already harping on him for them. But as I pointed out yesterday, Howie granted anonymity to WaPo executives who were almost certainly WaPo publisher Weymouth and WaPo Executive Editor Brauchli so they could blame this all on Charles Pelton and make claims about what the Pay2Play Dinners were supposed to be.

Two Post executives familiar with the planning, who declined to be identified discussing internal planning, said the fliers appear to be the product of overzealous marketing executives. The fliers were overseen by Charles Pelton, a Post executive hired this year as a conference organizer. He was not immediately available for comment. 


Weymouth knew of the plans to host small dinners at her home and to charge lobbying and trade organizations for participation. But, one of the executives said, she believed that there would be multiple sponsors, to minimize any appearance of charging for access, and that the newsroom would be in charge of the scope and content of any dinners in which Post reporters and editors participated. [my emphasis]

Those anonymous quotations are now gone. Howie replaced the first with on the record quotes directly from Pelton, falling on his sword for not vetting the fliers (but not, it should be noted, for the plan itself).

The fliers were approved by a top Post marketing executive, Charles Pelton, who said it was "a big mistake" on his part and that he had done so "without vetting it with the newsroom."


"We should never imply that there’s a possible link between coming [to dinners] and access, either to the leaders or the policymakers or the journalists," he said, conceding that he had been "sloppy . . . in my enthusiasm to get the salons up and running without properly thinking through the implications of what was written." 

Killing the description of what the dinners were supposed to be 

But Howie doesn’t really replace the executive-who-appears-to-be-Weymouth’s claims about what the Pay2Play dinners were supposed to be. There’s the description of what was on the fliers, of course. Mostly, though, he’s left with Weymouth’s now on-the-record excuses for why Pay2Play isn’t such a bad thing.

But precisely what would be acceptable remains unclear. Asked whether the forums she envisions might still be viewed as buying access to Post journalists, Weymouth said, "I suppose you could spin it that way, but that is not the way it would have been done." She said the situation would be comparable to a company buying an ad in the newspaper while knowing that it "might hate the content" on that page. 

What? Weymouth was going to serve "content"–rubber chicken or something–that attendees would hate? She was going to interrupt Kaiser’s attendees just as they started attacking a public option? Make sure they weren’t allowed to speak to the White House healthcare czar? How do you control the content of a dinner party?

Ultimately–and this is the lede that gets buried in this story–the WaPo’s publisher still maintains that a Pay2Play dinner giving lobbyists access to policy makers (and–though the Executive Editor won’t let this happen now–reporters) is no big deal.

Arguing "everybody does it"

Rather than a real recognition of the problem here, the WaPo’s publisher basically argues–and Howie spends 356 words arguing for her–that "everybody does it."

But she said other news organizations sponsor similar conferences and that she remains comfortable with the basic idea of lobbyists or corporations underwriting dinners with officials and journalists as long as those paying the fees have no control over the content


A number of media companies charge substantial fees for conferences with big-name executives and government officials, but in many cases the sessions are open for news coverage.

This week, for instance, Atlantic Media is sponsoring the Aspen Ideas Festival, underwritten by Altria, Boeing, Booz Allen Hamilton, Ernst & Young, Mercedes-Benz, Philips, Shell and Thomson Reuters. Speakers include White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and Google CEO Eric Schmidt, along with journalists for Atlantic and other media outlets.

Atlantic Editor James Bennet said the festival, co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute, "is open to the press . . . and we’re videotaping it. We have editorial control over it. We decide what the panels are and who’s on them. There are absolutely no constraints put on it at all."

In March, the Wall Street Journal brought together global finance leaders — including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd — for a two-day conference sponsored by Nasdaq and hosted by Robert Thomson, the Journal’s top editor, and other editors and reporters. Outside journalists were invited to the session, which was on the record and webcast by the Journal. Participants, who paid several thousand dollars to attend, also had a White House meeting with economic adviser Lawrence Summers, which was off the record at his request.

The Journal also holds conferences with its All Things Digital unit. A session in May, described as offering "unmatched access to the technology industry’s elite," was sponsored by Hewlett-Packard and Qualcomm, among others, and featured the CEOs of Microsoft, Yahoo, NBC Universal, AT&T and Twitter, as well as Weymouth.

The New Yorker hosts an annual festival in Manhattan featuring its editors and writers along with other journalists, authors and entertainers. The gathering planned for October is sponsored by American Airlines, Delta, Westin Hotels and Banana Republic. [my emphasis]

Apparently, the woman now running the WaPo sees no difference between an event in her living room targeted to the biggest policy fight of the year, and more general exchanges of ideas. Apparently, she also thinks that if ideologically driven papers like the WSJ hold such events, so can she–even while invoking journalistic integrity with her next breath. Apparently she thinks that because Larry Summers–a chief target of those decrying beltway influence peddling–demands an off-the-record chat, it’s okay for her to offer it up as well. 

Apparently, the WaPo’s publisher thinks that an "everyone does it" defense makes her own efforts to peddle influence okay.

Listing the planned attendees

And it’s clear–given the list of key players Howie gives us–that that was the plan. The key players, Howie reveals, were supposed to be White House health care reform czar Nancy-Ann DeParle, Blue Dog Jim Cooper, and Kaiser Permanente, all big players in the upcoming healthcare fight.

For her part, DeParle is denying she had received the invitation (though, particularly given her fondness for the revolving door, this could be an attempt to parse a distinction between receiving an invite and agreeing to attend).

But a White House spokeswoman said no senior administration officials had agreed to attend, and an aide to DeParle said she had received no such invitation. 

Blue Dog headache Jim Cooper says–through an aide–that he would not attend a "radioactive" event like this.

John Spragens, a spokesman for Cooper, said that once the Tennessee Democrat learned the details of the dinner, he would not have attended "a radioactive event. . . . You don’t want to be put in a position as a congressman where someone’s buying access to you."

And while both those Democratic fans of influence peddling appear to deny they were attending a Pay2Play dinner, Kaiser Permanente makes a more narrow distinction between "buying influence" and "a seat at the table."

Sybil Wartenberg, a spokeswoman for California-based Kaiser Permanente, said the company had not made a final decision to finance the dinner — no contract had been signed — and was not attempting to buy influence. "Our organization is not as well-known on the East Coast," she said. "We’re keenly interested in reform and want to be at the table for discussions."

I assume, however, that Kaiser was well aware of just how exclusive Katharine Weymouth’s table was set to be. 

Which, if you read between the lines of Howie’s latest effort to tell this story, is what we’ve got. Though Weymouth and Pelton disavow the flier they sent out (Brauchli disavows the plan itself), they appear to stand by the principle of getting the key players on a policy fight together in the publisher’s living room. For a price. 

  1. Rayne says:

    Oh, everybody does it is correct, but it’s the likely first time some idiot actually did it from their own damned dining room table.

    That’s Weymouth’s personal touch.

    By the way, I asked yesterday whether Pelton’s former employer the Wall Street Journal did this stuff — and lo, there’s the answer. I’m sure he was simply doing what he had been doing all along.

    But not at somebody’s personal home.

    Watch, somehow they’re going to start blaming the DFH bloggers. You see, WSJ’s Health Care blogger attended an event on health care in Dec. 2008, produced by Argyle Executive Forums and sponsored by Harvard Business School’s Health Industry Alumni Association. INVITATION ONLY, not unlike the WaPo salon(s). WSJ blogger was the ONLY media person listed in attendance…

    Bet you WaPo will simply shift heads a little bit and they’ll start sponsoring these events in a similar fashion, only they’ll run them through an adjunct function of Kaplan, with WaPo people in attendance. Just watch.

  2. BoxTurtle says:

    Yeah, it’s a weak story. But all Weymouth has to do is spin enough not to lose significant numbers of subscribers or advertisers. I’m sure that a moonie owned paper will find support from SOMEWHERE to get them through these difficult times.

    They won’t lose their WH access or their favored treatment from those they treat with editorial kindness.

    Boxturtle (And they only have to keep it up until MJ’s funeral pushes everything else out)

    • Rayne says:

      Weymouth’s real agenda is making money for The Washington Post Company, not Washington Post Media (which includes the Washington Post, other print outlets,, so on).

      The Washington Post Company is the publicly traded firm which Berkshire Hathaway and other investors own, and which benefit most from WaPo’s ability to influence legislation and tax policy. As long as the losses in stock value of The Washington Post Company are well offset by the gains due to legislation and tax policy modifications shaped by WaPo, WaPo and Weymouth will continue their business as usual. But if the net-net bottom line is not positive, well…the clock will start ticking.

      That’s why I figure they’ll move this opportunity to sell influence to a layer outside of WaPo but inside the holding company structure; the investors still want a crack at an upside while making use of sunk costs in WaPo.

      [edit: for a past example of similar decision-making, see GE’s Jack Welch and the purchase of NBC. Been there, done that, everybody does it, you know?]

      • Mauimom says:

        But if the net-net bottom line is not positive, well…the clock will start ticking

        I wish this were true with regard to Warren Buffett & Berkshire Hathaway.

        Buffett’s MO is to buy [or make a large investment in] a company and then “let the managers run it.” [BH owns approx. 18% of the WaPoo, as I recall.]

        Buffett had, shall we say, a “thing” with Katherine Graham, helping her after her husband died and teaching her business fundamentals. He’s continued to hold WaPoo stock, even as its value has plunged down the toilet.

        For a strict Midwesterner, I’d hope that this latest immoral move by Grahma’s granddaughter would inspire him to dump some WaPoo holdings, but I’m not holding my breath.

        • Rayne says:

          I hear you, but Berkshire Hathaway is not the majority holder of The Washington Post Company, only cited as a substantial holder. Buffett may have a big role on the board, but he still owes both his B-H and WPO investors a responsibility when it comes to performance. That performance has been really bad, lagging the market badly for the last several years in spite of the diversification to an education and media company, in spite of the overall crappy performance of the rest of the market (just map WPO chart against NYSE and NASDAQ).

          Take a look at the rest board of directors and see if there aren’t a few other key people who might be rather sensitive to scandal and possible downside of this investment.

        • Mauimom says:

          he still owes both his B-H and WPO investors a responsibility when it comes to performance

          Hey, whatever it would take to get Buffett to dump the WaHo stock — whether it’s scandal or poor performance [how about both] — I’d be all for it.

          Buffett unfortunately has a way of “hanging in there,” even with his disreputable friends. See, par example, Goldman Sachs.

          Take a look at the rest board of directors and see if there aren’t a few other key people who might be rather sensitive to scandal and possible downside of this investment

          Jesus, I don’t see anyone on there [WaHo board] who has a shred of integrity. Am I missing something?

          I was thinking more of BH’s dumping the stock because it wasn’t performing well, and thus hurting BH’s bottom line.

      • phred says:

        Your comment reminded me of another question I had. Presumably when ordinary conference organizers seek underwriters to sponsor their event, it is because they need to raise revenue to pay for the conference venue and whatever materials are handed out to the attendees. In this instance, other than a caterer, there shouldn’t have been any other expenses. So where was the $50k per salon going to go? Into the WaHo general fund? Were any of the attendees paid to be there? Did Howie address this in his article?

        • Rayne says:

          Actually, I think the $50K probably just covers expenses.

          There may have been a stipend paid to WaPo people to encourage them to be there. (We know at least one WaPo person indicated they didn’t see anything wrong with a stipend.)

          Try pricing an upscale DC dinner event, fully-catered with wait staff, parking attendants and clean-up along with additional security, for about 50 attendees (I think the number 20 is pure bullshit). Bet you that runs between $250 to $500 per head.

          I think the number is still too light on this, they were planning to make money on something here, but it’s not right out in front of us.

        • phred says:

          Thanks Rayne. I think the stipend is key here, who was getting paid to show up?

          But you’re right, the catering, cleaning, security, parking etc. probably isn’t that cheap in DC. I forget that we are discussing Versailles on the Potomac ; ) Do you think they planned to use solid gold flatware?

  3. foothillsmike says:

    John Spragens, a spokesman for Cooper, said that once the Tennessee Democrat learned the details of the dinner, he would not have attended “a radioactive event. . . . You don’t want to be put in a position as a congressman where someone’s buying access to you.”

    Shorter Jim Cooper – I’d come if no one knew about it

  4. ThreadTheorist says:

    So Jim Cooper agreed to attend the Salon dinner knowing that it was “sponsored” by Kaiser-Permanente? It should have occurred to Cooper that he could not normally accept payment for a dinner from a K-P lobbyist. So how was it that Cooper thought that the WaPo laundering the lobbyist money for him would make it OK? The event became radioactive only with regard to the WaPo seemingly going for a pay-for-print scheme. The money-laundering aspect should have set off Cooper’s alarm bells, but did not.

  5. alabama says:

    “It’s going to be cutting costs and developing new products and trying new things—throwing a little more spaghetti against the wall,” she tells the Style staff. “Some of them will work and some of them won’t. I don’t think there’s a magic bullet that is going to turn our industry around.”…..print=true

    So says the lady in question to her staff. If I were attending, I would identify with the spaghetti.

  6. phred says:

    Given the people intended to attend, this wasn’t about an exchange of ideas, this was about coordinating to kill the public option.

    The fact that they are using the “everyone does it Mom” adolescent argument of last resort shows just how indefensible this sort of influence peddling really is. It is high time that all of these children (WaHo, WSlutJ, etc.) are grounded.

  7. Teddy Partridge says:

    With the possible exception of Cooper, whose ethics are toilet-quality anyway, it also seems that Weymouth was selling access she didn’t have.

    • emptywheel says:


      Click through on that DeParle link before you say that.

      Honest, given her background, I think they had their mark chosen very well. She is precisely the kind of person that makes this czar-based (that is, no Senate oversight) policy formulation problematic.

      • phred says:

        Is that why Obama is Czar happy? Because they don’t need Congressional approval or oversight?

        I have always hated the term czar, precisely because it is so anti-democratic, I didn’t realize that there were real consequences in terms of accountability behind that job function. Thanks for that clarification.

        • emptywheel says:

          Yeah, you put the people like Larry Summers and DeParle in WH appointments that don’t require Senate confirmation. Not only can’t Congress keep them out, but Congress doesn’t have clear oversight responsibility over them.

      • rkilowatt says:

        czar…need I point out that “czar” and “Tsar” derive as direct translations from Latin “Caesar”, as in tyrant Julius of empire fame…ditto “Kaiser”. Using such terms arguably displays a love of tyranny, or Fascism.
        The latter derives from the Roman symbol of fasces, a bundle of rods/sticks wrapped around an axe that symbolized the power of a Roman magistrate to punish or kill at will.[it was carried by a standard bearer ahead of a travelling magistrate to display his offial powers of enforcement.]

  8. alabama says:

    Does anyone know the story of the leak? Did the leaker have a relationship with the paper? As for the timing of the thing: had the invitation been in print for a while, and if so, was the act of sharing it with Politico in any way connected to the firing of Froomkin?

  9. SaltinWound says:

    It’s the off-the-record chats you mention that bother me most and seem like a logical consequence of this sort of event. These lobbyists were being set up to be the journalists’ future anonymous sources.

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The Post, I’m sure, has long sought to develop intimate relations with “A” list lawmakers and government executives of the day. It will, too, have kept its eye on the “A” list lobbyists, the cream (or refuse) that floats atop the legion of lobbyists that have tripled since George Bush moved into the white house that lies a few blocks toward the Potomac from the lobbyists’ ancestral offices on K Street.

    What seems new is less that Ms. Weymouth parties with them both at elegant soirees or long nights of gin and poker (whether or not that’s a contraction). It’s that she now needs to charge for and openly advertise for it. I wonder whether she takes credit cards or traveler’s checks.

  11. skdadl says:

    People’s descriptions of Washington on this thread are beginning to remind me of Gogol’s St Petersburg stories, especially “The Nose” and “The Overcoat.” Those stories have charm, though, charm that partly rides on pathos, and then eventually magic — but there has to be at least one functionary/bureaucrat/lobbyist/player in there whose crumpled little soul you can actually care about. Otherwise, we don’t have a masterpiece here.

  12. Hugh says:

    WaPo was caught pimping for the johns of K Street and the whores of the White House and Congress. Weymouth, Kurtz et al are trying to sell the line that it was just an innocent social club and that no one there was going to have their pants on should not detract from this.

    Watching the MSM is sort of a like attending a demolition derby, you know they are all going to crash and burn but the interest lies in how they are going to do it and in what order.

  13. fatster says:

    An aside. Harry Reid on Harry Reid.


    Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: “I’m not very good at twisting arms. I try to be more verbal and non-threatening.”

    (Thanks to TPM Reader RL for the catch.)

    –David Kurtz


    • Hugh says:

      “what are words worth?”

      If they are soft and mushy, instead of hard and shelly, I would not give you a bird’s song for them or a parakeet’s

  14. EdwardTeller says:

    OT, but possibly important:

    At a closed news conference at her home in Wasilla, at 11:00 a.m. Alaska time, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin announced that she will be resigning her duties as Governor of Alaska. More as details emerge.

  15. punaise says:

    “We should never imply that there’s a possible link between coming [to dinners] and access, either to the leaders or the policymakers or the journalists,” he said,

    jeebus, what a crock-o-sh*t. why else would there be a price tag?

  16. punaise says:

    total speculation: must be an indictment looming over Sarah or some other shoe about to drop.

    • EdwardTeller says:

      The AK bloggers’ speculation is that there is an indictment looming. Apparently, even though a lot of reporters are hanging out, she refused to take any questions.

      Two weeks, then Lt Guv Sean Parnell, the guy who put the “lack” in “lackluster” will take over.

      I guess I’l do an Oxdown post and leave emptywheel alone.

  17. Twain says:

    I’m sure we’ll get some great info from ET today. Can’t wait to hear her reasons for resigning.

  18. ThingsComeUndone says:

    GOPers don’t resign over Mistresses, hookers, dippers, or gay bathroom sex. Mark Foley left over boys. So I’m going to be nice to Sarah and assume its an indictment. Anyone know who takes over if Sarah leaves and when the next election is?
    Do we have any strong candidates?

  19. ThingsComeUndone says:

    GOPers don’t resign over Mistresses, hookers, dippers, or gay bathroom sex. Mark Foley left over boys. So I’m going to be nice to Sarah and assume its an indictment. Anyone know who takes over if Sarah leaves and when the next election is?
    Do we have any strong candidates?
    4 th of July weekend great time to resign nobody will pay attention.

  20. Mormaer says:

    The flyer is very slickly and expensively done, of course the in house printers are cheap. But the argument that the marketing shop would produce this thing AND distribute it (my understanding is that a lobbyist who had already been sent one gave it to Politico) without approval and it is supposed to be IN the bosses house is ridiculous. If Pelton had done this without approval every step of the way, he would be out on his ass as we speak. But he didn’t and they need him to cover for her.

    Also did I read this thing was only going to have twenty attendees who would receive a “an exclusive opportunity to participate” with those “who will actually get it done”? I think that pretty much explains what was attempted and they will find another way to do it. Perhaps in Vegas.

  21. TarheelDem says:

    I still don’t see the market. DeParle and Cooper could go to lunch. Cooper and a Kaiser Permanente representative could go to lunch. DeParle would be prohibited from contact with Kaiser Permanente. Is this last thing the rub? Is this an attempt at an end run around Obama’s restrictions of lobbyists? I thought those restrictions were in policy only and the same old reality was still going on.

  22. PPDCUS says:

    Narcissistic Personality Disorder under the Whoroscope

    This excuse, that everyone else does it, belies WAPO’s culture. The real takeaway from Kurtz’s latest piece is — We’re the Washinton Post. and we’re entitled.

    This is the same pathology as Goldman Sach’s attack against Taibbi in response to his Great American Bubble Machine expose` in Rolling Stone.

    When the liars & thieves prosper, we’re to blame for letting them get away with it.

  23. fflambeau says:

    Emptywheel, great reporting again. I have a diary up over at Dailykos on the legal implications of what the Washington Post was doing: “Did The Washington Post Violate Lobbying Laws with “Salons”? Please see it at:…..ith-Salons