Of all the different threads of the past week’s SalonGate flap, one of the most interesting has been the widely varying responses from Atlantic Media and The Washington Post. After Politico publicized the Post’s aborted effort, the newsroom—and publisher Katharine Weymouth—couldn’t backtrack fast enough. But since TPMmuckraker reported that Atlantic Media has been hosting similar off-the-record dinners for six years, that company has held its ground, most notably in a public letter from chairman David Bradley. (National correspondent Jeff Goldberg and politics editor Marc Ambinder have also shared their take.)
And while the core of Atlantic’s explanation is that these events help subsidize costly, globe-trotting reporting, its representatives haven’t just defended the salons as a necessary, revenue-generating evil. “At the end of the day, it’s something that helps our journalism,” PR rep Zachary Hooper told TPM. “It gives [our journalists] more perspectives for their journalism.”
Curious to hear specific examples of these journalistic benefits, I spoke Tuesday afternoon with James Bennet, editor of The Atlantic. Bennet’s remarks were necessarily constrained by the fact that the events are, after all, off the record, and he was careful not to make too large a claim for the salons’ editorial value. But he described two cases in which, he said, the salons, “like a lot of off-the-record conversation, inform[ed] the subsequent reporting of people who are present.”
A salon dinner on the eve of the 2008 New Hampshire primary featured senior strategists from the major campaigns, as well a range of political journalists. The debate “gave us all a lot of insight into the conventional wisdom on all sides…which is that Barack Obama was going to walk away with it,” Bennet said. When Hillary Clinton stunned Obama with an upset victory, knowledge of what the campaigns had expected in advance helped the editorial staff sort out the spin, he said.
Another salon—like the New Hampshire event, it was sponsored by Microsoft—was held in Minneapolis during the 2008 Republican convention. Both political journalists and senior allies of the McCain campaign were in attendance, and the event unexpectedly turned into a “very, very angry debate” about the quality of press coverage, Bennet said. “I knew that the McCain folks were angry, but I didn’t know how angry.”
Describing the events months after the fact, and without going into detail because of their off-the-record status, Bennet said that “the takeaway now sounds fairly banal.” But it didn’t necessarily seem that way at the time: the conversation was interesting, the feel for the tenor of debate was of value, and “these people just aren’t brought together” in other settings, he said.*
Bennet also said the business side of Atlantic Media, which issues invitations for the salons, has accepted his suggestions for participants, and that he doesn’t believe there are different ethical standards for daily newspapers and periodicals when it comes to hosting such events. Asked whether the editorial staff has ever had to push back against the business side or the expectations of sponsors when it comes to setting ground rules, he said, “I’m not going to talk about internal debate.”
In a separate interview, Hooper said that the promotional flier obtained by TPMmuckraker and posted in conjunction with its story was actually a slide from a presentation used in sit-down sessions with higher-ups from major advertisers. In a typical case, Hooper said, after a corporation (or, occasionally, non-profit) agrees to sponsor an event, Atlantic Media will work with the sponsor to settle on a specific topic of interest.
The company “maintain[s] complete editorial control” over the events by selecting the list of invited participants and insisting on no restrictions on questions, he said. Most participants are neither government officials nor lobbyists, and Atlantic Media makes no promise of access to government employees—though “it’s possible that people could think that,” Hooper acknowledged. So what should sponsors expect for their (undisclosed) sum? “Some perspective on an issue that concerns them from the absolute best and brightest,” Hooper said.
If they expect more than that, of course, it might be because of the language in the promotional slide, which suggests the dinners may be used to “introduce CEOs of hosting organization to targeted influencers,” “build relationships with key stakeholders in priority markets by establishing a rapport,” and “test messaging and inform opinions with a cross-section of ‘elites’ from government” and other sources. In his letter, Bradley, after defending the salons, wrote that the marketing materials would be revised because they “do not all reflect the central fact of our conversations – dialogue and debate, without the advance of a particular interest.” But asked about that promotional language, Hooper said it is a fair characterization of the salons.