Now, the ethical rules governing such events vary widely, and to my knowledge, none have been as crass and brazen as what the Post proposed. But these shocked media outlets are acting like erotic masseuses scandalized by the whorehouse next door.
"You cannot buy access to a Washington Post journalist," insisted Marcus Brauchli, the Post's executive editor. Really? As a close observer, I say balderdash. You may not be able to pay cash or make out a check to the Washington Post Co., but getting access to journalists is pretty easy. They make it hard to buy them lunch -- the fastest access in the old days -- but a party with an open bar still works. A surefire way for lobbyists to gain access to a reporter is to give him or her a scoop. Another way is to help them with their stories. You could also subsidize a think-tank conference, sponsor a PBS show or just flatter the dickens out of a reporter. This last is the cheapest financially but often costly in terms of self-esteem.
The real trick to these methods is to make it seem like they're not methods at all. The best lobbyists know everybody, get along with everybody and make things happen for their clients and bosses. That's the value of lobbyists; they make it look so easy and take the sting off the fact that they're lobbyists. Washington is rich in rituals in which incredibly valuable favors are exchanged for other incredibly valuable favors. Nobody puts a price on them, but everyone understands they're not free.
Perhaps what really offends is the flier's truth in advertising. If the Post didn't try to charge for attendance, most journalists, politicians and lobbyists would have leaped at the chance to attend. That's the way things used to work for Weymouth's grandmother, Katharine Graham, who hosted Washington's most famous high-powered salon for decades.
Of course, that was when newspapers were hugely profitable and money was the tawdriest medium of exchange. That's what makes all the outrage so quaint. It's like passengers on the Titanic refusing to leave their cabins before the steward lays out their evening clothes. Some things just aren't done.