The big media story of the day is that the Washington Post wants to sponsor “Salons” that bring political superstars and health care lobbyists together. The idea stems from an initiative piloted by Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth, who wants to build a conference-hosting biz under the Post’s roof.

Here’s how it’d work: Lobbyists would pay big money to the Post for the chance to hobnob with Washington players in a given area—-you know, government officials and Washington Post reporters.

In other words, pay to play, or exactly the sort of business that the Post itself has slammed in one investigative feature after another. Media types and subscribers are busy right now voicing their outrage over the proposed scheme, the first installment of which has been canceled. The Post newsroom, too, is up in arms about the get-togethers, and there’s some disagreement as to whether editors were adequately briefed on this biz-side program.

Sure, it looks bad. But whenever these conflict-of-interest brouhahas pop up, I wonder why media watchdog types ignore it when a newspaper’s sports department is involved. Pretty much every sports department at every newspaper plays the game.

The Washington Post, the only daily I subscribe to and care about (and, full disclosure, freelance for), sponsors every major team in the city in some fashion, and pretty much every gathering of athletic superstars.

It’s always been that way. Here’s a reference to Washington Senators/Washington Post ads from 1926 saying the newspaper is “as dependable as the Big Train.” The company is listed as a “Bronze Sponsor” of this week’s Tiger Woods’ golf tournament in promo materials, just as the paper was going to disclose sponsorship of the Salons in programs for those events.

Does sponsorship change the paper’s coverage?

Well, would The Great Dan Steinberg™ (TGDS®)* have been tasked to do a multi-platform package about Bruce Boudreau, coach of the Post-sponsored Washington Capitals, playing a round at Congressional, mentioned again and again in the package as the site of Woods’ tournament, if the company weren’t a major benefactor? Would Congressional have given TGDS® access to the prissy course and the coach to do the package? And would Woods’ people have at least spelled the company’s name right on the sponsors page (“Wasington Post Digital”?) if it’d kicked in enough dollars for silver or gold status?

Who knows?

And, while hockey ain’t health care, and Bruce Boudreau ain’t in the executive branch, I read more about the Capitals than UHC, and he’s gotten as much ink this year as anybody who would show up at the Post’s tea parties. (Then again: Would Rep. John Boehner, Woods’ playing partner in yesterday’s pro-am, have gotten favorable mentions here, here, and here, heading into the health care debate?)

Again, this is just one paper and one town. The same thing goes on everywhere. But what I want to know about those whining about the Salons: How come conflicts of interest don’t matter on the sports page?

* Would I mention The Great Dan Steinberg™ so often if he weren’t my neighbor and hero? We’re all conflicted…