Washington Post–how much is access to a journalist worth?

July 7, 2009

What if you could get inside access to one of the nation’s most influential journalists? Lots of clients pay big PR agents and firms lots of money, lots and lots of money, for the purpose of getting greater access to top-level journalists. But what if newspapers or news outlets in their business crisis decided to just skip the whole PR agency thing and charge for access?

I’m not saying that is what is going on at the Washington Post, but the “salon” event at the home of the publisher is starting to walk, talk and quack like a duck.

This is interesting from several perspectives. For one thing, it is a major–I mean major–reputation crisis for the Washington Post. And since most reputation crises involve how to deal with media reporting around the crisis, it is also doubly fascinating to watch news organization manage media crises. The apologies are streaming forthwith, as are the “that’s not what we meant at all” and “someone inside really screwed up.” Fine. I’ll accept that. A marketing person did what was expected of them and sold the event based on benefits to those who would pay $250,000 to participate in this very special meeting. Since journalists from the Washington Post would be there, would it be too much to say that this would give those attending some kind of inside access? I think not. But whoa, what  does that mean? Now you have to buy a good story? And what it does it mean for the readers?

Reminds me of a good size public crisis I was involved in a number of years ago regarding a forestry project on the southern tip of South America, in Tierra del Fuego. Environmental activists were getting up in arms about the potential large scale forestry project. A very negative and very incorrect article appeared in the newspaper in Ushuaia. The employees from the company I was working with were in Ushuaia and met with the newspaper. They offered a substantial sum of money to buy advertising in the paper to get their story out. The editor or publisher asked them if they would like their story in advertising form or in news form. They asked me what they should take and I said news form, of course.

But if you can buy the news, what does it mean for the readers? Are we getting to this level of journalistic integrity. The no, no, no’s we hear from the publisher certainly suggest the concern she has that people might interpret it that way. She is very right to be concerned about public perception around this.

I think it is a very good thing this little problem has erupted. It will make everyone a lot more sensitive to the very real temptation to allow journalism to be tainted with corruption in the business crisis they are in. Maybe it will help protect the integrity for just a bit longer.


2 Responses to “Washington Post–how much is access to a journalist worth?”

  1. I agree with the significance of this story. As a newspaper reader [longtime resident of main circulation are for WAPO and once delivered it as newspaper delivery boy] really want this to survive. But the WAPO has declined in integrity as a jounalistic leader for some time. Many of its reporters are untrained and rely almost totally on the counter-propaganda handed out by the FEDS as their public affairs units feed the MSM. The WAPO website is terrible and often seems to need the smallest amount of time and attention to improve greatly. This story just highlights the fact that jounalism is now like many other fields show over substance. There are two fundamental reasons why the free press is failing in the US and cannot be restored just by Blogs! First government secrecy at all levels of government is a total rejection of government by the people, for the people! Almost 2/3rds of all government reports at the federal level are never made public for a variety of reasons. All repeat all government sponsored research even for pharma/drugs should be made public.
    Second, Congress should devote more time and attention to protection of the 1st Amendment with appropriate oversight. Because of campaign contributions and the need for even the corporate world to get handouts from Uncle Sugar the appropriations process draws the best and brightest and richest of the lobbyist that now corrupt Congress and our democracy (republic).

    Just as a reminder the 1st Amendment to the Constitution reads as follows:

  2. Sorry blew it. The 1st Amendment reads as follows:
    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the
    freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    Note that SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the US) has given Corporations ( a legal fiction created to limit the liability of individuals from the danger of ship losses in a world suddenly filled with sea-going commerce in the 16th and 17th Century primarily the coffee houses of England and Holland) all the rights granted to individuals in this Amendment and others. The result is the demise of our press and democracy as we get the best politicians money can buy.

    It is all one party inside the beltway. Just read William Grieder’s excellent book from the early 90’s “Who Will Tell the People.”

    Apparently not the WAPO! Nor its minions!

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