Insider Dinners with News Outlets Leave the Public Hungry

Gene Policinski

Inside the First Amendment

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director

The general notion is not really open to dispute today that the news media of tomorrow will be very different from the news media of yesterday — but the specifics are.

The challenges of operating a successful news business while maintaining an independent First Amendment role are encapsulated in the recent kerfuffle over “salons” — small gatherings of journalists and others — tentatively offered, but now withdrawn, by The Washington Post. As it turns out, similar gatherings have been conducted for six years by Atlantic Media, publisher of The Atlantic magazine and the National Journal group.

According to the Associated Press, The Washington Post‘s publisher apologized July 5 to readers “for a plan to charge business leaders and lobbyists for intimate dinner discussions with government officials and the newspaper’s journalists.” The Web site initially reported that the Post sent fliers seeking potential sponsors for dinner-party meetings at $25,000 a night. The events would include private conversations with newspaper journalists and high-powered government and private leaders. The meetings were to be off-the-record and for participants only — no public disclosure or report was planned, reports said.

Critics have savaged the now-withdrawn Post program as unethical and simply selling special access to its vaunted news staff.

As reported by columnist Jack Shafer in the online magazine, Atlantic chairman David Bradley said that “for a half dozen years, Atlantic Media has been hosting sponsored salon dinners in Washington and around the U.S.” Bradley pointedly noted the diminishing percentage that print advertising represents of his company’s total revenue, down from 55% in 1999 to 29 % today — and that such sponsored dinners were a new revenue stream.

Bradley said the dinners serve a good purpose, citing guests who have said “they find no other place for such purposeful, engaged, constructive conversation across walls.” As to the off-the-record stipulation: “We were hoping to avoid the ‘canned remarks and rehearsed sound bites’ that come with much public-policy discussion.” Bradley added, “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.”

Both Bradley and Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth said editorial independence was not threatened by such private meetings. But surveys including the First Amendment Center’s annual State of the First Amendment show much of the public already is skeptical of news media motives — even of the industry’s collective honesty. Closed-door sessions with no public involvement, reporting or outcome seem a poor approach to dealing with such perceptions.

I’ll concede that off-the-record discussions involving breakfasts and dinners likely have been staples of newsgathering since, well, news sources began to eat. I have attended mealtime confabs in my earlier career as a reporter, and even organized a few while reporting on the Indiana Legislature. But the only money involved was the minimal cost of the food — and the intent was a better-informed press corps with a goal of improved reporting to the public. There was no mention, as in the now-disclaimed Post fliers, of being able to “build crucial relationships with … news executives in a neutral and informal setting.”

After Weymouth’s apology for “a planned new venture that went off track,” some bloggers and columnists have suggested ways the plan could have been righted: transcripts of the sessions, public involvement in discussion topics, followup online chats or diverse sponsorships to avoid even the appearance of outside influence.

Good ideas, all. But the work of a free press ought to start with efforts that most directly benefit the public. Yes, it’s possible that on-the-record sessions may lead to less-candid discussion. But expert journalists deal with and defeat that potential challenge at every press conference and in every interview.

Sponsored programs in which reporters and newsmakers have intelligent conversations on important subjects are not automatically ethically challenged. Car dealers, furniture stores and the like long were mainstay advertisers of newspapers — and appropriate firewalls were built between sales and the newsroom. As long as journalists pick the subjects and the questions, and the goal is open information that citizens can readily use to make decisions in our participatory democracy, such meetings can have real value.

But a bought-and-paid-for dinner plate at an “insider-only” evening salon is a poor mechanism by which journalists — let alone the public — might get beyond being served canned rhetoric and reheated platitudes.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: E-mail: [email protected].