‘Salon’ Saga Continues at the Post

If you’ve been enjoying a weekend-induced news hiatus, you’ve missed some strange developments in the Washington Post “salon” story. Here’s what happened over the last two days:

On Saturday, The New York Times published an odd “postscript” to its reporting noting that Marcus Brauchli, the Post’s executive editor, had known the proposed dinners were being promoted as “off the record” after all. In its earlier coverage, the NYT—like other publications—had relayed statements from Brauchli that indicated otherwise. The NYT’s note was based on a Sept. 25 letter Brauchli sent to Charles Pelton, the since-departed Post marketing executive in charge of the proposed salons, which Pelton’s attorney had sent to the Times. In the letter, Brauchli states: “I knew that the salon dinners were being promoted as ‘off the record’… The New York Times reporter apparently misunderstood me… Please feel free to share this letter with anyone who questions whether you kept me informed about the way the dinners were promoted.”

Michael Calderone subsequently obtained and posted the letter at Politico, which broke the salon story in the first place. He also wrote: “Brauchli made similar comments to me that he gave to the Times, and my understanding from our conversation was that he did not know the salon dinners were being promoted as off the record.” (It was an understanding that I shared, based on my conversation with Brauchli after the “salon” story first broke on July 2, and while Post ombudsman Andy Alexander hasn’t weighed in on the recent developments, his blog post at the time suggests he was under the same impression.)

Gabe Sherman wrote an account for The New Republic detailing the behind-the-scenes legal wrangling between Pelton, the Post, and the Times, which included this passage: “Through a series of private letters Pelton’s lawyers sent to the Times, Pelton was successful in proving that Brauchli changed his story and the Times’ reporting failed to reflect that he walked-back from his original claims of not knowing about the off-the-record ground rules.”

The blogger emptywheel pointed out that perhaps the statements in the letter shouldn’t came as a great surprise after all, since a Post story on July 7 reported that “senior managers” at the paper—who, one would think, included the executive editor—had agreed “that the event would be off the record.”

Brauchli, while declining to respond to inquiries about how the letter could be reconciled with his earlier statements—a Post spokesperson told CJR and other outlets that “The letter speaks for itself”—did speak to the Post’s own Howard Kurtz. Kurtz quotes Brauchli as follows: “I was aware, as I have said since July 2, that some materials described the proposed salon dinner as an off-the-record event. As I have also said before, I should have insisted that the language be changed before it surfaced in any marketing material.”

That “since” is a little ambiguous; it’s not clear whether Brauchli meant it to be inclusive of July 2, or whether he is acknowledging that his position changed after that date. In any case, that is the day on which Brauchli spoke to reporters for the NYT, Politico, and CJR, and to the Post’s ombudsman. All of those people seem to have come away, at the time, with the understanding that Brauchli was not aware that the dinners were being promoted as off-the-record events. That understanding was influenced by the claim—repeated in Kurtz’s story—that Brauchli had not seen the flyer that formed the basis of the original Politico account before it went out, but it was also based on the general tenor of Brauchli’s comments at the time. Did we all “misunderstand”?

Fortunately, there may be another opportunity to find out. As Jamison Foser notes, Brauchli is scheduled to participate in an online Q&A with readers at noon today. Should make for an interesting session.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.