'Wash Post' Salon Issue Raises Ethics Concerns About Brauchli

By: Joe Strupp The latest uproar over the controversial "salons" at The Washington Post -- which were canceled last summer after concerns about the ethics of having people pay for access to journalists -- has sparked new calls for Post Editor Marcus Brauchli to explain exactly what he knew about the salons, which were never held, and had been promoted as "off-the-record" gatherings.

Last weekend, The New York Times published a "Postscript" (not a correction) to an earlier Times report, revealing that Brauchli had revealed in a letter to Charles Pelton, a former Post marketing executive who resigned in the wake of the salon controversy, that he did know the salons would be off the record. Pelton and his attorney had pressed for this and passed the letter on to The Times.

The Times did not quote the part of the letter where Brauchli claimed that the Times reporter misunderstood him. The Times has not replied to this charge, with a spoekswoman saying it speaks for itself. But Politico reporter Michael Calderone cast doubt on this, writing that Brauchli had told him the same thing back then.

All of this prompted Brauchli, in an online Post chat Monday, to defend himself, stating, "When these events were planned, we intended that the information from them would inform and shape our coverage, without attribution. That is not, under our rules, off the record. They were later promoted as 'off the record,' and I knew that before July 2. As I have said repeatedly since then, I failed to reconcile the language and the intentions, which I should have done. The notion that I lied to the New York Times ... is absurd."

But neither the Times nor the Post has responded with more explanation of the issue. Brauchli has not responded to requests for comment from E&P, while Times Executive Editor Bill Keller has declined comment. This has left some ethics observers with questions about the entire issue, and how much Brauchli knew or has explained.

Bob Steele, Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter Insitute, stopped short of calling for Brauchli's resignation. But he said the editor's actions raise questions and do not do enough to answer them.

"We should question Brauchli's journalism ethics standards in agreeing to restrictions on attribution in the proposed salons. We should question whether Brauchli was disingenuous in how he responded to a New York Times reporter's questions about the attribution standards for the proposed salons. We should question Brauchli's foot-shuffling defense for his role in this imbroglio," Steele said. "Brauchli clearly has a responsibility to the Post journalists and to the public to come clean."

Adds Mike Fancher, chair of the American Society of News Editors ethics and values committee and former executive editor of The Seattle Times: "I think it would be helpful to have a full accounting that sets the record straight for all involved. It is clearly an unfortunate mess."

Jeff Bercovici, the former Portfolio writer now with AOL Finance, has called on Brauchli to resign but no one else has yet joined him.

"This appears to be a situation that is growing in complexity and it's unfortunate because this type of event should never have been considered from the beginning," said Kevin Smith, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and a professor at Fairmont State University in Fairmont, West Virginia. "Now, we appear to have evidence that the editor of the Washington Post sanctioned these 'off-the-record' salons between his staff and advertisers."

He later added: "If Mr. Brauchli is lying, he is compounding the offenses already committed. The ownership of the Washington Post gets to make the decision on his fate, but it's ultimately the readers, the public, who will pass judgment on the Post as a reliable and credible publication."

Andy Schotz, chair of SPJ's ethics committee and a reporter at The Herald-Mail in Hagerstown, Md., said he is still confused "about exactly what he said and if he lied."

"The Post needs to be as out front and open as it can be, which means explaining to your readers what happened," Schotz added. "I hope they don't consider this chat comment to be sufficient in clarifying what happened. Maybe it is time for another editor's column."

Jeff Seglin, a journalism ethics professor at Emerson College in Boston and a weekly ethics columnist for The New York Times Syndicate, said Brauchli's response in the chat was enough for the moment. But, he added, "if it turns out he lied to The New York Times, other moves would be appropriate."

John Solomon, a former Post staffer and current executive editor at The Washington Times, declined to comment on the specifics of the issue, but said of his cross-town rivals: "If they made a mistake, get in front of it, be transparent and let the staff move on."

Much more background can be found in another E&P story here.


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