Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Another media outlet sells access to lobbyists

Allison Kilkenny

Following The Washington Post’s public shaming for selling lobbyists access to administration officials, newspaper editors, and reporters for $25,000 and up, National Journal has created a private ‘pay-to-play’ web site for members of Congress. The whole amazing story is documented by The Washington Examiner and should be read in its entirety here.

The website known as 3121 is described as “a new feature on NationalJournal.com that will become available exclusively to Capitol Hill staffers in September.” Only individuals possessing an email address that ends with Senate.gov or House.gov can gain access to 3121.

For the modest one-time contribution of $295,000, lobbyists, corporations and advocacy groups with an interest in getting their messages to congressional staff can be “Premier Promotional” sponsors. Dropping just over a quarter of a million gets you “prominent placement in all 3121 marketing materials, plus visibility at planned 3121 “Innovation Happy Hours” and the site’s launch party. You will also get “exclusive rights to all advertising on 3121 from the site launch in September until December 31, 2009.”

Cheapo lobbyists who can only afford the $95,000 fee get the ”Research and Education” package which still buys lots of access, including ringside seats with “a highly targeted group of Capitol Hill staffers who will work with us pre-launch and beyond.” The beta phase will run from July through September, and “will include many points of contact throughout the pocess to receive as much feedback on 3121 as possible.” Additionally, Research and Education package “partners” will “have the opportunity to attend any or all training sessions” as Hill staffers learn the 3121 system.

I’m sure there are all kinds of fancy, PR-speak ways to dress this as “target marketing,” but this is really just another example of a media outlet selling access to lobbyists. National Journal’s David Miller claims “our research showed that our Capitol Hill audience had been looking for a tool like this, and we felt we were in a great position to provide it.”

National Journal is a “Washington-insider” magazine, which is what apparently separates it from The Washington Post, and frees it from all those burdensome ethical restraints. The magazine survives primarily on subscriptions from “insiders” like members of Congress, Capitol Hill staffers, the White House, Executive Branch agencies, the media, think tanks, corporations, associations and lobbyists. National Journal is part of the National Journal Group, a division of Atlantic Media Company, and the magazine was purchased in 1997 by David G. Bradley, a man who describes himself as ”a neocon guy” who was “dead certain about the rightness” of invading Iraq.

This appears to be a backdoor way for lobbyists to solicit government officials. In the privacy of an online forum, lobbyists can buy access to officials, and certain premium members can then translate that online love into real life meetings. If lobbyists are using their premium subscriptions with National Journal to cajole elected government officials, the American people have the right to know which of their officials — and by extension which of their staffers — are gracing the 3121 forums, and which lobbying firms are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into courting elected officials.

Since only members with a .gov email address can subscribe to 3121, those subscriptions should be made available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act. The list of individuals who are using government email accounts to sign up for a forum where they can meet and mingle with lobbyists after hours should surely be part of the public record.

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