The David Bradley Effect
Tuesday 07 July 2009
by: Jack Shafer | Visit article original @ Slate Magazine
David Bradley, owner and publisher of the Atlantic.
The corrupting effect of his [David Bradley's] off-the-record salons.
The off-the-record-for-dollars salon scheme that got Katharine Weymouth and the Washington Post in so much trouble last week prompted TPM Muckraker to flush David Bradley - owner and publisher of the Atlantic - into the open about his salon-happy organization.
In an interoffice memo that he posted to the Web yesterday, Bradley defended the corporately sponsored, off-the-record public-policy dinners that his company has been hosting for "a half-dozen years" in his patented self-effacing manner. He claims that his presence at his sponsored dinners "as to all things - tends to dampen high spirits." Elsewhere in the memo, Bradley writes, "Please forgive me if this runs long." Oh, no, David! It's your blogspace and your defense! Go on as long as you'd like! I'll even hold your coat while you do!
Bradley separates the intimate, off-the-record dinners he throws for policymakers and journalists in which no money changes hands, written about in April by the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, and the buck-raking, targeted ones that he convenes for corporate sponsors such as AstraZeneca, Microsoft, GE, Allstate, and Citi. As TPM Muckraker reported, the topics presented at Bradley's paid sessions have been financially relevant to the sponsors (in order, health care, global trade, energy, the American city, global markets).
There's not much new or wildly controversial about Bradley's noncommercial sessions. In its various incarnations over the decades, the Georgetown journalism establishment has tossed a million off-the-record dinners for the powerful. Former Washington Post Co. Chairman Katharine Graham served so many meals to notables at her Georgetown mansion that the District of Columbia's Food Safety Division could have easily insisted on conducting regular health inspections of her kitchen. You might not like the fact that the journalists and politicians socialize, but you can't do much about it.
It's Bradley's corporate salons and his defense of them that deserve scrutiny. He claims that the sessions are placed off the record to avoid canned remarks. "My own view is that there is a great deal of constructive conversation that can take place only with the promise that no headline is being written," he writes.
Has Bradley never attended a function at the Cato Institute, where the repeal of the drug laws, the phasing out of Social Security, the privatization of education, the dismantling of the Cold War war machine, and other contentious topics are discussed openly and cordially on a regular basis? The same can be said for discussions at the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for American Progress, and other think tank venues. Elsewhere in his memo, Bradley applauds his company's ability to attract "authors and activists" representing "all sides of an issue" at its talks: "conservatives and liberals, conservative think tanks and liberal think tanks, corporations and consumer groups, all manner of associations and all manner of environmental, health advocacy and public interest groups. The art here is bringing disparate parties to table for a constructive conversation."
It's fantasy to imagine that there's any "art" to staging constructive conversation in Washington, and Bradley knows it. All that's required is the selection of a topic in the news, the recruitment of a few interesting speakers, the procurement of a small auditorium or hall, the distribution of a few hundred invitations, and the production of an attractive cheese-ball-and-white-wine spread. Hit those marks, and the city's journalists, bureaucrats, office-holders, scholars, lobbyists, activists, policymakers, and freeloaders will storm your event to genially wonk around the clock. It would be easier to get a nap at your average think tank debate than in a soundproof room.
So why Bradley's elaborate defense of the off-the-record rules? Going off the record is what Washingtonians do to make themselves feel important. By placing his paid salons off the record and charging high prices, Bradley makes them appear exclusive, valuable, and daring. The sponsors feel important because they think they're impressing their audience with their frankness and because they're encouraged into thinking that the off-the-record journalists and politicians are sharing electric insights they could never share with their readers. The politicians, well, the politicians live in their own cognitive dissonance bubble. Any audience will do.
The rest of the country knows how badly off-the-record stinks. In 2004, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's handler invited several regional reporters to meet his boss after he gave a speech in Omaha, Neb. Wolfowitz's comments would have to be attributed to a "senior Defense Department official," the handler said. The reporters replied that they and their editors had no interest in a no-name briefing. Besides, they noted, it was already public knowledge that Wolfowitz was the most senior Defense Department official in the region that day. Why the ridiculous sourcing arrangement? The standoff ended and the interview commenced when Wolfowitz agreed to go on the record.
If paid off-the-record salons are charades, why oppose them? For one thing, I hate to see anybody defrauded, even AstraZeneca. For another, no journalist should serve as an accomplice to fraud. But most important, the off-the-record comfort zones run by Bradley for the benefit of his corporate clients corrupts the business of journalism in deep, fundamental ways. Every new off-the-record venue drives a measurable quantity of political discourse out of the public sphere and into the private. It's in the interests of journalists and the public, as the Omaha press corps demonstrated, to push the powerful onto the record. Establishing safe harbors for them - and charging them for the privilege of anchorage - is not what journalism is about. The erection of such salons says this to corporations and public officials: You owe your candor not to the public but to one another, and journalistic organizations such as the Atlantic and the Washington Post will gladly pocket the cash to help you keep your "secrets."
If David Bradley doesn't understand this, will somebody please underwrite a public debate to fill him in?
Selling Out the Washington Post
Wednesday 08 July 2009
by: Dan Kennedy | Visit article original @ The Guardian UK
A tawdry scheme to sell access to journalists tarnishes the reputation of one of America's great newspapers.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth's misbegotten plan to sell access to her journalists at off-the-record dinners in her own home is that so many found it so shocking.
Politico broke the news last Thursday, on the cusp of the long Fourth of July weekend, with the death of Michael Jackson still dominating television and Sarah Palin's bizarro news conference yet to come. Almost immediately the Post pulled back, explaining it away as a business-side mistake. And that, one imagined, would have been that.
But the story continued to grow. On Sunday, the Post published a letter to readers from Weymouth that begin with the inevitable "I want to apologize". On Monday, Geneva Overholser, head of the journalism programme at the University of Southern California and, not insignificantly, a former Post ombudsman, popped up on PBS's NewsHour to say how "unsavory" she found it. And on Tuesday, the Post published yet another story on the subject, this one reporting that an internal investigation had been launched.
Well, round up the usual suspects.
At a time when the news business is under siege and public distrust of the media remains at disturbingly high levels, it's encouraging that we are still capable of being appalled when we're afforded an unappetisingly close-up look at the nexus of power, media and money that so dominates the US political system.
But it's not as though we should be surprised by what happened ñ or, rather, by what almost happened. As Jonah Goldberg observed in the Los Angeles Times, "these shocked media outlets are acting like erotic masseuses scandalized by the whorehouse next door."
Let's back up for a moment. The scheme exposed by Politico was what disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich might recognise as "pay for play". For $25,000 apiece, lobbyists and executives of special-interest organisations could sponsor a "salon" in Weymouth's home at which they would have off-the-record access to White House officials, members of Congress, and Post senior editors and reporters.
The cozy arrangement was outlined in a flier that an outraged health-care lobbyist (imagine that) provided to Politico. The Post even promised a volume discount of 11 salons for just $250,000.
Immediately the Post's executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, said he knew nothing about the specifics and that his troops would not participate. The paper's ombudsman, Andy Alexander, called it "a public relations disaster." And Weymouth called off the salon, saying the flier misrepresented what she had in mind. (It is not clear what she had in mind.)
Of course, such intimate get-togethers are nothing new. The Post's offense was to get caught openly flogging the crass element of commerce. In a particularly withering commentary, New York Times media columnist David Carr compared Weymouth's proposed salons with those of her legendary grandmother, the late Post publisher Katharine Graham.
"The difference?" wrote Carr. "Mrs Graham bestowed legitimacy (Richard M Nixon never made the cut, even as president). Ms Weymouth decided to sell it, with her paper's editorial integrity apparently thrown in as a parting gift."
The trouble is, even pay-for-play is not all that unusual among media organizations. So it didn't take long for TPM Muckraker to reveal that the Atlantic, a low-profile though influential public-policy magazine, had held about 100 similar events since 2003, sponsored by corporations such as General Electric, Microsoft and the insurance company Allstate.
That, in turn, drew a defense from Atlantic owner David Bradley - and a biting essay by Slate's Jack Shafer, who wrote that the practice of holding such off-the-record gatherings "corrupts the business of journalism in deep, fundamental ways."
"The erection of such salons," Shafer added, "says this to corporations and public officials: You owe your candor not to the public but to one another, and journalistic organizations such as the Atlantic and the Washington Post will gladly pocket the cash to help you keep your 'secrets'." (Slate is owned by the Washington Post Company, though Shafer certainly didn't seem to hold back.)
The whole idea of journalism is to serve as an independent check on power. Outsiders ranging from mid-century rabble-rousers like George Seldes and IF Stone to the bloggers of today have railed against access as a compromise and, ultimately, a corruption of that independence.
When properly used, though, access is a tool that institutions like the Post can use to expose the inner workings of government in ways that outsiders, for all their virtues, rarely can.
Maybe that's why the Post's initial efforts at damage control proved so inadequate. Over the decades, the Post has used its access for the public good, bringing to light such important stories as Watergate, the mistreatment of veterans at Walter Reed Hospital and the existence of secret, overseas prisons operated by the US government.
For Katharine Graham's granddaughter to try to sell that precious commodity as though it were just another supermarket ad is tawdry, but it's worse than that. It raises the spectre that Weymouth fails to appreciate the legacy she inherited and its importance as an institution.
Weymouth may not have understood that last week, but early indications are that she gets it now. It's just too bad that her growing pains as a publisher have to give the rest of us such an acute case of indigestion.