Last week, Politico reported that the Washington Post had planned to put on an exclusive off-the-record “salon” at the home of its publisher, where corporate lobbyists would pay as much as $250,000 to gain access to Post reporters and editors, as well as Obama administration officials and members of Congress. The news provoked an outcry in DC journalism circles — the Post‘s own ombudsman called it “pretty close to a public relations disaster” — and the the event was quickly canceled.
But the notion that the Post‘s gambit represents some sort of new and uniquely outrageous collapsing of the wall between the editorial and business sides of a news publication is badly off the mark. In fact, it would be closer to the truth to say that the paper got caught pushing the envelope on a money-making and influence-building strategy that other outlets had been quietly deploying for years.
Check out this undated flier, obtained by TPMmuckraker. Sent out by Atlantic Media, which publishes The Atlantic, the flier advertises the magazine’s “Salon Dinners,” which it describes as “private conversations among thought leaders.”
These aren’t one-off events, by a long shot. The Atlantic has held approximately 100 of them since 2003, according to Zachary Hooper, a spokesman for the magazine.
And they’re by and large initiated by the corporation that pays for them, according to Hooper. “The corporate sponsor” — with whom the magazine generally has a longstanding business relationship — “comes to us and says, ‘We’re interested in having a discussion on a certain topic.'” The magazine’s business staff, said Hooper, takes things from there.
The events, as described in the flier, appear strikingly similar to the dinner planned by the Post — right down to the use of the word “salon” to create an aura of intellectual inquiry. Just as the Post reportedly sought to have health-care lobbyists pay for an event on health-care reform, the Atlantic flier makes clear that the “salons” are paid for by corporations and focused on a public-policy issue in which the corporate sponsor has a major stake. It offers the following “sampling of salon dinner sponsors and topics”:
â¢ AstraZeneca on “Healthcare Access and Education”
â¢ Microsoft on “Global Trade,”
â¢ GE on “Energy Sustainability and the Future of Nuclear Power”
â¢ Allstate on “The Future of the American City”
â¢ Citi on “The Challenge of Global Markets”
Hooper declined to say how much these corporations put up to sponsor the events.
And just as with the Post, the Atlantic dinners are strictly off-the-record, and not open to the public. The flier describes them as:
Private, custom, off-the-record conversations of 20-30 key influential individuals, moderated by an Atlantic editor, designed to bring a thoughtful group together for unbounded conversation on key issues of the day.
And — again like the Post‘s planned dinner — the draw for corporations is access not just to the hosting publication’s reporters and editors, but to other big-name journalists, not to mention members of Congress and other Washington heavy-weights. Among the “sampling of attendees” listed on the flier are Chris Matthews, George Stephanopoulos, David Brooks, Fred Hiatt, Maureen Dowd, Andrea Mitchell, James Carville, John Kerry, John Sununu, Gary Hart, Norm Coleman, Chris Dodd, Mitt Romney, and Rahm Emanuel (listed as a congressman, a position he held from January 2003 until the start of 2009).
Since last week, at least two separate posts on the Atlantic‘s website have drawn attention to the Post‘s misadventure. Both note in passing that the Atlantic itself organizes corporate-sponsored events, without elaborating.
There do appear to be differences between the Atlantic‘s events and what the Post had in mind. Hooper, the Atlantic spokesman, stressed that the magazine makes an effort to put together a guest list that will allow journalists and politicians in attendance to hear a range of viewpoints. For instance, said Hooper, the Astra Zeneca-sponsored dinner on health care included representatives from the National Business Coalition on Health, and Leapfrog, both of which are advocacy groups that support efforts to lower health-care costs, as well as from the National Alliance on Hispanic Health, and the American Lung Association. And the GE-sponsored event on nuclear power involved the Natural Resources Defense Council and the non-partisan research group Resources for the Future, among others.
“At the end of the day, it’s something that helps our journalism,” said Hooper. “It gives [our journalists] more perspectives for their journalism.” He added that the money from the dinners “helps underwrite the broader journalism we do.”
The salons aren’t the only high-fallutin’ corporate-sponsored events put together by The Atlantic. Last week, the magazine hosted its yearly “Aspen Ideas Festival,” which brings together a similar roster of media, political and business elites, and is paid for in part by corporations. But those confabs are on the record and open to the media. Nor does there appear to be quite as close a link as with the salons between the discussion topics and the interests of the corporate sponsors.
It’s not just the Atlantic, of course. As the Post helpfully pointed out in its effort to do damage control on the scandal, the Wall Street Journal earlier this year “brought together global finance leaders — including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd — for a two-day conference sponsored by Nasdaq and hosted by Robert Thomson, the Journal’s top editor, and other editors and reporters.” But that too was on-the-record, and was web-cast by the Journal.
The Post added:
The Journal also holds conferences with its All Things Digital unit. A session in May, described as offering “unmatched access to the technology industry’s elite,” was sponsored by Hewlett-Packard and Qualcomm, among others, and featured the CEOs of Microsoft, Yahoo, NBC Universal, AT&T and Twitter, as well as Weymouth.
And of course The New Yorker holds an annual corporate-sponsored festival, featuring its editors and writers, as well as other big-name cultural figures. The one planned for this fall is paid for American Airlines, Delta, Westin Hotels and Banana Republic, reports the Post.
What to make of all this? Clearly, there are degrees of egregiousness here. A corporate-sponsored event that’s off the record and closed to the media and the public seems more objectionable than one that’s open and on the record. Equally, an event that’s focused on a public-policy issue that’s of particular interest to the event’s corporate sponsor seems more objectionable than, say, having a clothing company or an airline put up money for a festival that treats everything from the global economy to indie rock, as in the case of The New Yorker. An event whose advertising seeks to lure corporate lobbyists by promising the ability to directly influence elected officials or journalists seems, perhaps, more objectionable than one where the potential for influence-peddling is at least less explicit. It’s also worth noting that when a daily newspaper risks compromising its coverage of a key policy issue, it probably does more damage than when a monthly ideas magazine appears to do the same.
So it’s fair to say that the Post‘s plans, as described, seem to rank highest on the egregiousness scale than any arrangement that’s yet surfaced — with the Atlantic‘s own long string of corporate-sponsored “salons” perhaps coming in second. But the key point is that, even before this latest occasion for outrage, there was hardly the kind of clear and distinct line between the news and business sections of many major media outlets that the reaction to last week’s news would suggest.
Late Update: Atlantic Media publisher David Bradley responds. Our take is here.