Newsweek since 2007 has sold advertising packages to the oil industry's biggest influence group that included the right to co-host forums on energy issues, including two where members of Congress sat side-by-side on panels with the association's president.
American Petroleum Institute ranks among advertisers that have reached a spending threshold that allows them to attach their name to a Newsweek event and have their top executive as a panel speaker. API President and Chief Executive Jack Gerard was the sole industry speaker joining Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Reps. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) at an "executive forum" the magazine and API held at the U.S. Capitol in March.
Newsweek and API have teamed on four forums so far and are planning another -- "Climate and Energy Policy: Moving?" -- for Dec. 1, when the Senate could be holding a floor debate on climate legislation. An invitation sent yesterday to lawmakers' offices said Gerard again would be a panelist and that requests to speak were "currently pending confirmation with notable members of the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate." Lawmakers receiving invitations included Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Newsweek said it imposes ethical safeguards for the events, including that industry sponsors have no say in who is invited as panelists or what questions will be asked by the moderator, usually a Newsweek editor. API has no direct contact with the magazine's newsroom, which sometimes covers the forums, said Mark Block, the magazine's director of external relations. Outside media are invited and attend, and everything said is on the record for publication.
"There's absolutely no conflict of interest, because they're not driving our editorial" content, Block said. "These events are transparent. They're on the record. They're inclusive of media. They're inclusive of people that might disagree. There's no concern of appearance of impropriety because it's an open and transparent process."
But journalism and ethics experts decried the arrangement.
"You're selling access," said Edward Wasserman, Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. "Newsweek is using its reputation as a great news organization to convene these officeholders to talk about public policy. Then it's renting out a space at the table for one of its customers who would not be at the table if not for giving money to Newsweek."
John Watson, associate professor of communication law and journalism ethics at American University in Washington, agreed.
"You're enticing them to buy these ads to get this thing of value," Watson said.
Newsweek is not the only publication that holds events sponsored by industry. Atlantic Media and the Wall Street Journal are among those that accept corporate funding. Criticism of Newsweek's arrangement with advertisers comes not long after the magazine's parent, the Washington Post Co., suffered a major ethical black eye.
The Washington Post this summer had planned to have a series of off-the-record dinners at the home of its publisher, Katharine Weymouth, where corporations, lobbyists and interest groups could pay $25,000 for private access with public officials and journalists. The series of "salons" was canceled after a flier on it slipped out and Politico reported the plan.
That scandal, and the partnerships that Newsweek and others have with industry, come as newspapers and magazines suffer plummeting circulation. Most media companies are looking for new sources of revenue.
"This is a crisis period for journalism," Watson said. "Everybody is looking for a new market paradigm. The danger is that everything else of value to journalism is at risk because you have to stay alive."
Newsweek has had the co-presentation partnerships with advertisers since at least 2003, Block said. The relationship with API started in May 2007, when API and the magazine teamed up for a forum called "Progress on Energy Legislation in the 110th Congress." At that forum, like the one earlier this year, API's president had the stage along with members of Congress. Panelists were then-API President Red Cavaney, Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and a Newsweek representative.
Newsweek under the program also has held events sponsored by petroleum company BP, a question-and-answer session in 2007 and a Q&A and roundtable discussion in 2008 on "the Future of Energy." BP chose not to have an executive appear as part of either one, although it was eligible to do so. Newsweek has teamed with Ricoh and Lufthansa Airlines on more expansive leadership conferences that featured two to three 45-minute discussions. There are partnerships with others, as well.
About 20 to 30 advertisers reach the spending level where they are "afforded the opportunity to co-present an event with Newsweek," Block said. The majority chose not to do so, he said, because they either don't have an issue that would work with a forum or don't want the publicity.
Block declined to reveal the level of advertising required, but said that, "they're all at a very high level that they'd be offered that opportunity."
Newsweek develops the content of the events, with no input from the advertising partner, he said. Of the advertisers, he said "what they are allowed to do, they will have their most senior person take part in the discussion. That is the extent of their participation."
The person chosen to speak "must be credible and must be accredited," Block said. He described Gerard and his predecessor Cavaney as meeting both criteria because "they're speaking on behalf of a lot of people."
There have been events where advertisers have requested speakers who have been rejected, Block said. He declined to name the companies or people involved.
Newsweek, Block said, holds many forums and events featuring panelists who are not from companies that advertise. Events with API, BP or others who paid for advertising that led to the forums shouldn't be looked at in isolation, he said.
Topics picked for forums are intended to be timely, such as the Dec. 1 forum on climate legislation scheduled to be held in a room in the Senate side of the Capitol, Block said. The March event was held just after Rahall, who is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, started to look at new energy legislation.
Newsweek and API also united for an event in February 2008 called "globalization trends and energy and the growing competition for resources." Cavaney, API's president at the time, spoke at that along with Karen Alderman Harbert, who at the time had just left her job as Department of Energy assistant secretary for policy and international affairs. There was another event in May 2008 at Stanford University on energy research innovation.
At the Washington events, Block said, Newsweek invites outside media, lawmakers and people from think tanks and schools.
"The panel is very objective and does not have the editor speaking directly with the panelist before the event," Block said. "It's not influencing A. how Newsweek covers the story, B. how the moderator asks questions, or C. how the audience" responds and asks questions.
"There's absolutely no conflict of interest because they're not driving our editorial" content, Block added.
Asked whether the events give API and other advertisers access to lawmakers, he said that "Jack Gerard and API are sophisticated and organized enough that they have the ability to reach these people without Newsweek."
The safeguards Newsweek puts into place at the events don't negate the conflict, said Watson with American University.
"There should be an impenetrable wall between media fundraising, which is what advertising is, and the newsroom," Watson said. Rules put into place "after the fact," he added, are "bandages to cover a gaping ethical wound."
"The firewall is there not only to prevent the quid pro quo but the appearance of quid pro quo," Watson added. Journalists must be considered credible to convey information readers trust, he said.
"As soon as there's any connection between income and newsroom employees, you've stepped off the precipice," Watson said.
Others allow sponsorships
Atlantic Media surpasses Newsweek in terms of number of events with industry. So far this year, it has hosted 54 sessions alongside corporations, advocacy organizations and sometimes nonprofit groups, said Zachary Hooper, a spokesman for the company. There are usually multiple sponsors for each event, he said, and they are "people who have a particular vested interest in a topic." Many of those same people are advertisers, he said.
Companies sometimes directly help fund conferences, Hooper said. Other times, they buy ad packages that include funding a conference.
Last week, Atlantic Media held an event on water as an environmental concern. Agriculture and biotechnology company Monsanto Co. and Black & Veatch, an engineering, consulting and construction company, sponsored the gathering. Monsanto Co.'s CEO Hugh Grant and Dan McCarthy, president and CEO of Black & Veatch Water, spoke during a panel discussion during the event. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Anne Castle, Interior assistant secretary for water and science, also spoke at the summit.
Atlantic Media with the Aspen Institute co-sponsors the Aspen Ideas Forum and its D.C. counterpart, Washington Ideas Forum. Corporate sponsors of the 2009 Aspen Ideas Forum held in July included Altria, Boeing, Booz Allen Hamilton, Ernst & Young, Philips, Shell, and Thomson Reuters. Atlantic Media and the Aspen Institute charge admission for the Aspen festival.
"I don't really think there is a conflict" of interest, Hooper said. "These are structured as an open dialogue. These are all on the record." Outside media can attend, he said, adding "the panels are structured to encourage debate and not focus on any one particular agenda."
The Wall Street Journal holds six forums a year that are sponsored by companies as part of an advertising package, said Robert Christie, vice president of communications for Dow Jones & Co., which owns The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones sells tickets to the events that are restricted to certain people. To attend the chief executive officer council, for example, one must be the head of a large enough company.
The events are open to outside media, Christie said, and are covered by Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal. The newsroom side of the company handles the content of the events, and "they meet the same standards as the stories that go into the Journal," he said.
All of the events have members of Congress attending, Christie said. He rejected the idea that companies at the events have special access to those lawmakers.
"All of our conferences are public, whether you attend or you just view on WSJ.com," Christie said. About the lawmakers who attend, he said "most of them just make a speech and leave."