In the wake of this proposed WaPo salon series there is a lively debate going on in Washington right now about off-the-record dinners and meetings where there is an intersection of policymakers, journalists, and corporate interests. In the course of taking Atlantic Media’s David Bradley to task over Atlantic’s off-the-record dinners Slate’s Jack Shafer writes:
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…
In general there’s obviously a legitimate debate about dinners and events of this type and where to draw the line on media activity and corporate sponsorship. However, having attended some I suspect the suspicion and paranoia is disproportionate to what actually goes on. But, I think on this off/on-the-record issue Shafer is mistaken and Bradley is onto something. It seems Shafer is conflating conflict with candid and while we’ve got plenty of the former we don’t have much of the latter. The town doesn’t reward it. So, at these public events you do often get a back and forth. But it’s generally predictable and often staged. Sadly, it’s only in private that you often hear a lot of nuance, textured positions, caveats, and all the rest. These are not immutable laws, of course, and skillful moderation at public events can help, but it’s frequent enough to be a real issue.
For instance, a few weeks ago the journal Democracy (which if you’re not reading you should) hosted a meeting at the Brookings Institution with the education and political media and some players from the education reform world. Originally off-the-record, at the insistence of many of the journos who attended the session was put on the record. Michelle Rhee, Randi Weingarten, and Joel Klein! In the same room! Talking teachers’ contracts! Gates Foundation personnel, too! E.J. Dionne moderating! The result of that all-star line up? Snooze…Absolutely predictable, filibusters, little candor, etc…you could have written a script for it.
So sure, to Shafer’s point there was engagement, even some back and forth, but none of the really complicated issues were broached nor was there in-depth discussion of serious points of disagreement among those in the room. There likely would have been more of that in an off-the-record setting. How do I know that? Call it the wisdom of that crowd. I have real time emails and texts from media and participants alike making the same point…In addition, at one point Randi Weingarten offered to go off-the-record to share some information I know is interesting because I’m involved, but the reporters wouldn’t let her change the rules for that instance. So she said nothing. How was that helpful?
Overall this is unfortunate because while the public might have missed out on that actual discussion at Brookings, had it been off-the-record, I’d like to think subsequent reporting would have been enriched by more context, nuance, and understanding as the result of a candid conversation. Perhaps no one was fooled but I still think the format left something on the table and because reporters go off the record with sources all the time I don’t see the line that is being crossed by sometimes doing it in group sessions.