- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Washington Post’s publisher apologized to readers Sunday for a plan to charge business leaders and lobbyists for intimate dinner discussions with government officials and the newspaper’s journalists.

A flier surfaced last week promoting a plan to charge $25,000 to sponsor one of a series of dinner parties that would include off-the-record conversations with Post journalists and access to Washington insiders. The series was canceled Thursday.

“I want to apologize for a planned new venture that went off track and for any cause we may have given you to doubt our independence and integrity,” Publisher and Chief Executive Officer Katharine Weymouth said in a letter that appeared in the newspaper’s Op-Ed section Sunday.

Ms. Weymouth said the flier wasn’t approved by her or the paper’s editors and that it didn’t accurately describe the plan for the small gatherings.

The flier advertised a “Washington Post salon” on health care reform at Ms. Weymouth’s home on July 21. The gathering would have included 20 or fewer guests, including Obama administration officials, members of Congress, business leaders and lobbyists.

According to the flier, each of 11 salons would have one or two sponsors who would pay $25,000 to underwrite the event and invite guests.

The flier said participants were offered a chance to “build crucial relationships with Washington Post news executives in a neutral and informal setting.” It called the health care salon an “off-the-record conversation.”

Ms. Weymouth’s letter said the paper was planning dinners but including “firm parameters” that gave sponsors no control over content and no special access to its journalists. Reporters wouldn’t be restricted from asking questions, she said.

“If the events were to be sponsored by other companies, everything would be at arm’s length,” she said in the letter.

Critics of the program say the newspaper’s promise of exclusivity for Washington insiders is at odds with the newspaper’s mission to its readers.

Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said the small-scale dinners were a mistake.

“I think there is a legitimate debate right now about whether we should be doing this at all. We thought there was a way to do so consistent with our journalistic values, but in light of this experience, it is clear that this was a mistake,” Mr. Brauchli said.

Ms. Weymouth said in an accompanying Post article that the July 21 dinner was hastily planned and that a marketing employee sent the flier without approval. She and Mr. Brauchli said in the article that the newspaper had been discussing a new business including dinners, seminars and conferences.

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