Before Sarah Palin stepped on the story, the talk of the Beltway was Salongate at the Washington Post. The venerable newspaper hatched a scheme whereby it would hold a series of "salons" at the home of publisher Katharine Weymouth in order to sell lobbyists and corporations access to Obama administration officials and the Post reporters and editors who cover them.
"Bring your organization's CEO or executive director literally to the table," read a flier for the first event. "Interact with key Obama administration and congressional leaders ... Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No. The relaxed setting in the home of Katharine Weymouth assures it."
The proposed ticket price? $25,000. Discount for 11 sponsorships? $250,000. Wonky badinage over crudites at Katharine's pad? Priceless.
Once Politico broke the story, the Post's newsroom went ballistic. The newsies were never asked to participate, and they swore they never would have. Weymouth canceled the scheme, and the Post blamed an aggressive marketing executive/event planner, Charles Pelton, for the debacle, saying he never cleared the fliers with her.
Would you invite a bunch of CEOs and pols to your boss's house without her seeing the invitation? Moreover, invitations to two politicians were sent from Weymouth's personal e-mail address. Oh, and Pelton still has his job.
But the funny part is how everyone -- including the culprits -- agrees this was an affront to all that is good and holy. The New York Times called it a "grievous wound." And because the Times is a dead paper walking, it should know.
Yes, some of the scheme does seem duplicitous. The Atlantic's Joshua Green reports that Weymouth's e-mail to Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) didn't mention corporate underwriting or the presence of lobbyists. Trying to cash in on influence-peddling without giving lawmakers a heads-up, never mind a piece of the action, does seem gauche, like asking a girl on a date only to set her up with a stranger by surprise -- and for a fee.
But here's the thing: What the Post proposed is hardly radical. Lots of major publications -- and by lots, I mean pretty much all of them -- offer an array of meet-and-greet opportunities. The Atlantic, which has been tsk-tsking the Post, is famous for such lavish get-togethers, as are the Wall Street Journal and the Economist. I've been to 10 national political conventions and long ago concluded that they are giant money-laundering operations whereby corporations funnel money through news organizations for maximum schmoozability.
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.