I'm sure you've all at least hear about the story Politico broke yesterday about the Washington Post attempting to sell access to Obama officials, newsroom journalists, and editorial staff. For the low price of $25,000, health care lobbyists could secure their place at a dinner at the Post's publisher's house with her and "the select few who will actually get [health care reform] done." They promised the dinners to be an "off-the-record" event where "the right people can alter the debate."
The Post is now trying to backtrack and say that the flier a health care lobbyist leaked to Politico was just a draft that hadn't been properly vetted (but somehow was already being distributed to lobbyists), and the White House is saying that they have no knowledge of any staff's involvement in this. The "salons" have been cancelled, and the Post, which has been one of the most condescending legacy media publications towards new media when it comes to ethics and journalism, is trying to salvage what remains of its reputation.
But what I find particularly disheartening about this whole mess is the subject matter proposed for the first salon: health care reform. I've been following that issue for some time, and three of the main reasons we don't have a public option even though a large majority of Americans support it are:
- the journalists who cover it for mainstream publications already have good enough health care to not really care about the issue,
- people without health care tend not to have enough money to gain access to politicians and staffers, and
- the insurance industry spreads misinformation about health care reform easily.
It's maddening that the only industry mentioned in the Constitution because of its important role in democracy would lead the way for a highly antidemocratic process on a specific issue that should be decided democratically. They really have no shame.
Here's a bit more information from the Politico article:
"Underwriting Opportunity: An evening with the right people can alter the debate," says the one-page flier. "Underwrite and participate in this intimate and exclusive Washington Post Salon, an off-the-record dinner and discussion at the home of CEO and Publisher Katharine Weymouth. ... Bring your organization's CEO or executive director literally to the table. Interact with key Obama administration and congressional leaders."
The flier promised the dinner would be held in an intimate setting with no unseemly conflict between participants. "Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No," it said. "The relaxed setting in the home of Katharine Weymouth assures it. What is guaranteed is a collegial evening, with Obama administration officials, Congress members, business leaders, advocacy leaders and other select minds typically on the guest list of 20 or less. [...]
The first "Salon" was to be called "Health-Care Reform: Better or Worse for Americans? The reform and funding debate." More were anticipated, and the flier described the opportunities for participants:
"Offered at $25,000 per sponsor, per Salon. Maximum of two sponsors per Salon. Underwriters' CEO or Executive Director participates in the discussion. Underwriters appreciatively acknowledged in printed invitations and at the dinner. Annual series sponsorship of 11 Salons offered at $250,000 ... Hosts and Discussion Leaders ... Health-care reporting and editorial staff members of The Washington Post ... An exclusive opportunity to participate in the health-care reform debate among the select few who will actually get it done. ... A Washington Post Salon ... July 21, 2009 6:30 p.m. ...
"Washington Post Salons are extensions of The Washington Post brand of journalistic inquiry into the issues, a unique opportunity for stakeholders to hear and be heard," the flier says. "At the core is a critical topic of our day. Dinner and a volley of ideas unfold in an evening of intelligent, news-driven and off-the-record conversation. ... By bringing together those powerful few in business and policy-making who are forwarding, legislating and reporting on the issues, Washington Post Salons give life to the debate. Be at this nexus of business and policy with your underwriting of Washington Post Salons."
How does this harm the democratic process, specifically when it comes to health care? Let me count the ways.
First, only health care lobbyists and insurance industry workers were offered a spot at the table, not labor, not the uninsured, not anyone who'd advocate for them.
Second, it shows the paper's disdain for the unwashed masses with phrases like "the select few who will actually get it done," "exclusive opportunity," and "unique opportunity for stakeholders to hear and be heard." (Note that "stakeholders" doesn't include health care consumers, voters, taxpayers, or sick people. Do they now not have a stake in the health care system?) In a functional democracy, many people work to get a policy like this through, from citizen lobbyists to people who talk it up to people who work to get people elected. In our democracy it's a bit lop-sided against the people who work and vote for candidates and policies, but a newspaper shouldn't be at the forefront of talking about how icky popular participation in politics is.
Third, the salons were billed as off-the-record, and it's entirely inappropriate for journalists to have lengthy, friendly, off-the-record conversations with the people they're supposed to be covering. These journalists like to fashion themselves as scrappy truth-seekers who work against those in power, but the truth is that they've normalized clubby relationships with the business and political elite to the point that they won't even write about what the people they're covering are saying directly to them.
Fourth, they weren't selling access to Obama administration officials, since they really aren't in a position to be doing that. And they weren't selling access to their journalists or editorialists since they're actually easy to access if a lobbyist is fine with an adversarial relationship with them. What they were selling was positive coverage. I suppose the idea is if a journalist or a columnist sits through a dinner with a lobbyist, the lobbyist can color their opinion on a topic to the point that soon every Post article on health care reform will have to mention concerns about "Communism" and "long lines" and "rationing" and "astronomical national debt" and "stealing from our grandchildren."
The most troubling about all of this, though, is that the only reason these salons didn't happen, and the only reason that we found out about them, was the conscience of a health care lobbyist who was disgusted with all of this and gave a flier to Politico. Otherwise, it doesn't seem like the Post was even going to mention these salons to the public in general. And our democracy truly will not survive if it depends on lobbyists' ethics to function properly.