The Washington Post has devoted copious column inches to a roaring dispute over the Cadillac Grand Prix of Washington, D.C., which is scheduled to take place alongside RFK Stadium starting July 19. The paper has noted that race cars will rev their engines within 50 yards of residences in Kingman Park; that the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission has stonewalled everyone seeking information on event financing, including the mayor and the D.C. Council; and that the commission tried to avoid performing a study on the environmental impact of putting 200 cars on a track near the Anacostia River in midsummer.
Yet until Wednesday, Post editors didn’t squeeze in one other detail: That the Washington Post has a business relationship with the event.
The newspaper signed on as an “exclusive print and online advertiser” effective Jan. 1, 2002, according to Post spokesperson Eric Grant, who declined to say how much cash trades hands in the deal. “In any advertising agreement, there are usually cash considerations,” says Grant.
Grant says the paper’s five-year arrangement with the race doesn’t qualify as sponsorship—a distinction that’s crucial to the newsies. Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie says that the newsroom disallows sponsorship “of races of this kind. It might appear to compromise our reporting.”
In a sponsorship arrangement, the Post would pay race organizers, who would in turn use the paper’s trademark on promotional materials. The official term for the Post’s deal is “media partner,” according to David Cope, of Bethesda-based Gilco Sports, which is handling sponsorship for the race. As media partner, the Post receives ad dollars from the grand prix and receives “some considerations as well,” says Cope, including signage at the race site.
The not-a-sponsorship deal makes business sense for the Post, even though auto-racing fandom varies inversely with educational level, according to Chicago-based market research firm Mintel Consumer Intelligence. The grand prix’s Web site boasts that “the Cadillac Grand Prix will allow companies to reach a diverse national and international audience through live television coverage on CBS, NBC and Speedvision.”
And maybe word of the Post’s arrangement could reach another audience: newsroom editors. “We were unaware until [Tuesday] of the Post’s involvement in the grand prix,” says Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao, who ordered that the paper’s Wednesday piece, on D.C. Council concerns about the race, carry a disclaimer on the Post-Cadillac deal.
In all, the Post published at least eight articles on the race without disclosing its corporate interest. One of the pieces, which appeared on April 25 in the sports section, bore all the hallmarks of boosterism, including talk of cool cars and nonstop action: “With four types of cars on the track at once—each with dissimilar horsepower, cornering speed and weight—drivers are constantly in traffic, making for tense moments and high drama,” wrote Post staffer Liz Clarke.
The sports section “has been good to us,” says a race official who requested anonymity.
Sports editor George Solomon says he knew of the arrangement between the paper’s market folks and the grand prix. However, he insists that “the news department has no relationship whatsoever with this event.”
Most of the paper’s grand-prix coverage, anyhow, has appeared in the Metro section under the byline of reporter Serge F. Kovaleski, who has broken story after story on the shenanigans of the Sports Commission. Kovaleski’s hard reporting shields his editors from charges of corporate-reportorial collusion.
“I would argue that anyone who would look at our coverage would come away convinced that [the arrangement] doesn’t have any impact at all,” says Armao. “There’s a huge fire wall here. I mean, the business side doesn’t tell us what they’re promoting.”
The Post’s communication gap is as noble as it is dumb, of course. This is a paper, after all, that sanctifies objectivity. Downie, for instance, has so thoroughly purged himself of opinions that he doesn’t even vote. That level of purity isn’t required of staffers, but membership in partisan and civic organizations is a no-no.
If the commercial side of the paper followed similar conflict-of-interest standards, it would torpedo Post alliances with the likes of the Cadillac Grand Prix organizers, whose event has become a bona fide civic controversy. When asked if the concerns over noise, trash, and bureaucratic secrecy would prompt the Post to end its arrangement, Grant replies, “As a company that has prided itself in being part of the community and that considers itself a viable member of the community, we will watch very closely the situation regarding the Kingman Park residents and the event.”
At the least, the paper’s failure to report its business interests fuels public cynicism about corporate shilling by news organizations. “In no article do they ever mention that the Post is [involved in] the race,” says John Capozzi of Barney Circle, a neighborhood near the race site. “That’s no surprise, right?”
The Call Goes Through
The Post has reversed its cheapo cell-phone reimbursement policy. Earlier this year, the paper downgraded its payback plan for mobile calls, contributing a mere $15 toward the monthly costs of many reporters. Although police-beat writers and other 24-7 personnel were exempted from the penny pinching, the policy prompted newsroom grumbling that the Post was asking employees to subsidize corporate expenses.
So a group of staffers proposed a compromise: On each monthly bill, reporters would figure out the percentage of their calls that were business calls; the Post would pick up the business portion of the entire bill.
Assistant Managing Editor for Planning and Administration Shirley Carswell adopted the policy effective late June. “The reporters were very reasonable in their approach,” says Carswell, who says she reserves the right to review the plan at year’s end. “Our intention was never to make anyone’s life miserable. The intention was to get under control a very costly item.”
In a December 2000 divorce filing, Northern Virginia Democratic Rep. Jim Moran disclosed a debt-consolidation loan that he had negotiated with credit giant MBNA Corp.
More than a year and a half later, in its July 7 edition, the Post printed an exhaustive investigation of the transaction, pointing out that Moran had received favorable loan terms around the time he was endorsing a pro-MBNA bankruptcy-reform bill on Capitol Hill.
That’s a long incubation period for an expose on a single loan. One week earlier, the Post reported on a $50,000 loan that the congressman had received from America Online founder James V. Kimsey. Was the Post piling on just in time for Moran’s 2002 re-election bid?
“The timing is strange,” says Moran spokesperson Dan Drummond, referring to the MBNA story. “Why didn’t they run it in December? Why didn’t they run it in January?…The Post will probably tell you that they went through a period that they were getting ready to run the story.”
Correct: “We put stories in the paper when they’re ready,” says Armao. “This was a really complicated story.” Armao noted that Sept. 11 “interrupted some of the reporting” on the piece and delayed its publication.
Instead of illuminating any Post conspiracy against Moran, the story’s timing underscores a more disturbing and enduring reality: Washington is essentially a one-newspaper town. A juicy story on a local figure with a history of financial difficulties sits in a public file for 19 months, and no news organization aside from the Post takes note. In this slacker news market, hell, the Post could have held the Moran piece until Election Day—or even 2004.
Downie says, “We’re the only large news organization in the area with the kinds of reporters to do a lot of investigative reporting at one time….We were not deciding that, ‘Oh, just because we can do this, we’ll just wait around and take our own time on it.’” —Erik Wemple