WASHINGTON―At The Washington Post Company’s annual meeting on Thursday, chairman Donald E. Graham acted perturbed that I kept returning, during the question and answer period, to the Post’s May 18 for-profit conference that is scheduled to feature Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. I wondered if McDonnell had been told in advance that his appearance was part of a scheme to raise money for the money-losing paper. Graham said he had been told, but I doubt it.
Several questions were posed to Stacey Johnson and Taylor Thornley of McDonnell’s press staff, in an effort to find out what McDonnell was told and under what circumstances he accepted the invitation.
The best that I could get from Johnson was this statement:
“The Washington Post invited the governor to participate in this discussion about the region’s economy. The governor’s foremost priority is job creation and economic development and he looks forward to the event.”
Needless to say, this boilerplate statement does not address the question of whether the governor was misled about the nature of the event, and the propriety of attending a for-profit “conference” that is being sponsored by major Washington, D.C. area corporations. In addition to McDonnell, speakers include Obama White House economist Austan Goolsbee and Post reporter Steven Pearlstein.
Notice that Johnson refers to the governor participating in a “discussion.” Well, it is not a discussion. It is a “conference” at an undisclosed location in the Tysons, Virginia, area that is closed to public attendance. Certain elites are being invited for the purpose of rubbing elbows with McDonnell and other speakers and making money for the Post. Corporations are paying to sponsor the event.
It is hard to believe that McDonnell would have accepted the invitation to appear at a conference, sponsored by a paper that savaged him during the campaign, if he had been told explicitly in advance that his appearance was designed to help the Post raise money to make up for dwindling circulation numbers. Instead, I think he was invited on the pretext that it was a public conference.
In fact, however, the conference is closed to the public, except for people who watch it online, and invitations to attend are only being extended to movers and shakers in the Washington, D.C. area. If you are lucky enough to get an invitation, you then have to pay $175 to attend. The price includes a subscription to a new Post business publication. Corporations like Bank of America and Verizon Wireless are sponsoring the event, in order to make more money for the Post.
It is perhaps understandable that Governor McDonnell decided not to pull out at the last minute, because the Post had already advertised his appearance, but he must make it clear to the paper that he will never allow his office or name to be used for commercial exploitation purposes in the future. For its part, the Post should abandon the idea of making money by selling access to public officials and its own news personnel.
Accuracy in Media is a citizens’ media watchdog organization whose mission is to promote fairness, balance, and accuracy in news reporting. Founded in 1969, AIM is the oldest non-profit press watchdog group in America. For more information, please visit www.aim.org.