On Sunday afternoon, the Washington Football Team lost to the Dallas Cowboys, and Punchbowl News was there to see it. The D.C.-based scoop shop, a newsletter-based online publication, partnered with the scandal-plagued and still nameless sports franchise to secure a luxury skybox from which to watch the game. And they invited some friendsin their own words, an exclusive group of D.C. decision makers.
The list of notable attendees is worth publishing in full: Drew Maloney of the American Investment Council (the private equity industrys trade group), Bruce Andrews of Intel, Jon Kott of lobbyist Capitol Counsel, Marissa Mitrovich of Frontier Communications, Mike Parrish of Bayer, Danielle Burr of McKinsey, Fred Humphries of Microsoft, Jane Adams of Johnson & Johnson, Stephen Ciccone of Toyota, Sean Kennedy of the National Restaurant Association, Isaac Reyes of Target, Brett Loper of American Express, Cameron Normand of Sony, David Castagnetti of law and lobbying firm Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, Craig Purser of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, Heather Higginbottom of JPMorgan Chase, Matt Miller of the corporate lobbyist the Business Roundtable, AJ Jones II of Starbucks, Lanier Hodgson of UNC Health Care, Michael Beckerman of TikTok, Alex Katz of Blackstone, and Robby Zirkelbach of ExxonMobil. They posed for some toothy photos with Punchbowl founder and journalist Jake Sherman.
The spokesperson for one attendee told the Prospect that Punchbowl invited these heavy hitters as guests, and they did not have to pay for their tickets. It is unclear whether or not the event was covered as part of a subscription to Punchbowl; the attendees organization did have a premium subscription.
On its face, the event looks like a flagrant violation of journalistic ethics. Basically every single lobbyist listed represents a firm that has lobbied legislators on the text of the Build Back Better, bipartisan infrastructure, and American Rescue Plan acts over the last ten months. Pharmaceutical representatives who successfully lobbied the prescription drug pricing regulations out of BBB, oil majors who lobbied against its environmental regulations, Blackstone who opposed tax reform, Toyota and Starbucks who have opposed unionization efforts. The National Restaurant Association, which killed the $15 minimum wage out of the American Rescue Plan Act, even makes an appearance.
Theres a reason why theres typically a bright line between the business and editorial departments at news outlets.
Over that same ten-month period, which makes up the entirety of Punchbowls existence, the publication has covered those pieces of legislation breathlessly. Build Back Better, in particular, has been the object of an overwhelming percentage of the outlets journalistic output. For the publication to then host the very same lobbyists who were attempting, and often succeeding, to take down multiple provisions in that bill as special guests at a free skybox event raises serious questions about whether Punchbowl has been doing journalism or simply laundering industry talking points.
Multiple requests for comment from Punchbowl as to whether any steps were taken to preserve journalistic integrity or prevent ethical breaches went unreturned.
Punchbowl is far from the only scoop shop in D.C., one of multiple spawns of the Politico publication model, which converted access into journalism for those interested in the inner workings of the Beltway. We are writing about power, the exercise of power, and people abusing power, Sherman told the Columbia Journalism Review this year upon Punchbowls founding. Sunday looks like a clear instance of the latter, with Punchbowl using its power and prevalence to score sweet seats and offer those spoils to Washingtons most powerful people, who know well about exchanging favors for influence.
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The publication has sparked the ire of many for its newsletter sponsorships, selling the skyline of its digital product as ad space, which results in its journalism being presented by ExxonMobil, presented by Uber, presented by PhRMA, presented by Chevron, or presented by Facebook, often during moments when those groups are under scrutiny in Washington, or when theyre implicated in some way in the text of the subsequent journalistic product. (Advertising constitutes the lions share of Punchbowls funding, with an estimated 3,000 paying subscribers contributing around $1 million of what the company has said is $10 million in revenue in 2021.)
The presenting sponsors look dubious, but its done elsewhere, like Politico Playbook, and theres no reason to believe that those sponsors are given editorial controlthough the ways in which getting paid by the people youre covering might influence that coverage seem obvious. Still, theres a reason why theres typically a bright line between the business and editorial departments at news outlets.
But hosting a confab with representatives of those sponsors as special guests, throwing them an exclusive holiday party in a luxury box, and posing for photos with the outlets editorial team insinuates an ethical dilemma far greater than some unsavory ad operations. If journalists are rolling out the red carpet for the very people whose work theyre supposed to be covering dispassionately, that certainly seems to set up a conflict of interesta news publication hosting a bunch of politicians for an exclusive hangout would certainly raise eyebrows, and lobbyists are more numerous and arguably more powerful in D.C. And just in case you thought it was only business leaders getting such special treatment, Tasha Cole of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was also in attendance (which should have the Democratic leadership asking itself about the company it keeps).
Punchbowl may not have even purchased the seats, but received them as part of a deal with the Washington Football Team, whom they shouted out with a huge thank you for hosting. Given that the scandal-riven franchise is also a relevant D.C. news subject, that too is a concern.
We have a unique skill and a unique know-how about Washington and how business gets done, Sherman announced in a January interview with CJR. Im not beholden to either party. Im not a partisan journalist. Thats a standard that all journalists, in theory, are held to; otherwise we would refer to their product as public relations messaging, advertising, spin, or any number of other rhetorical products that tend to pay much better than newsmaking. Most journalists manage to aspire to that standard without securing box seats for the people they cover, though. It suggests that Sherman is playing on a team, only the team isnt necessarily Democratic or Republican, but the team that has most of the money and power in Washington: the corporate sector.
The rise of access journalism has been pilloried in the past for existing in a gray zone between true transparency and spin, for its reliance on relationships to the powerful and its willingness to cite anonymous sources. This has made some suspect that those pieces are merely ventriloquizing the wants and whims of lobbyists and strategists. That sits at odds with the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, which requires one to consider sources motives before promising anonymity and reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger.
Throwing a party for lobbyists runs afoul of numerous counts of that code, including the special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and the requirement to be courageous about holding those with power accountable, for starters. I asked if the conversations between journalists and lobbyists at the party were on the record and if they would be made public; again, that request went unanswered.
It was a beautiful day for a game and great to be with so many Punchbowl community members, the publication proudly announced on Sunday. It may have also been a dark day for journalism.