Salons Under Scrutiny

Examining the ethics of sponsored, off-the-record events

“The newsletter’s mailing list is used to draw subscribers to closed-door ‘seminars’ in Washington twice a year at which top Administration and political figures speak. Once General Haig left the side of Richard Nixon in Key Biscayne and flew back to Washington to address one of these sessions. To hear notables give off-the-cuff, off-the-record insights, the businessmen and others who attend–about 65 to 70–pay $200 each. Some of those who have appeared at the request of Evans and Novak have been accorded exceedingly favorable treatment in the column, although there are exceptions, most notably Haig, who fell from grace in the column as he fell from power.”

Stephen E. Nordlinger wrote those sentences about Rowland Evans Jr. and Robert Novak, who gained fame and fortune on the strength of their “Inside Report” column and its related newsletter, in a takedown that appeared in the long-defunct (and, sadly, un-linkable) More magazine. In 1974. This business of journalists collecting money for hosting off-the-record gatherings, it seems, has been around for a while.

Still, given the events of the past week, now seems as good a time as any to take a look at the ethical questions posed by such gatherings. The belief here is that, taken separately, off-the-record dialogues and money-making live events are potentially problematic but within ethical bounds. But marry the two together, and you’re in dangerous journalistic territory.

It’s worth acknowledging some distinctions between the two media organizations that have come in for greatest scrutiny: Atlantic Media and The Washington Post. The Post was embarrassed because its justly infamous promotional flier, revealed last week by Politico (which also unearthed a related document), was startlingly abject in its enthusiasm to satisfy sponsors’ every wish—including friendly face-time with government officials and Post editorial staff.

Atlantic Media’s own promotional material for its private salons, which suggests that sponsors sometimes have a financial interest in the topic under discussion, treads too far into Postterritory. But Atlantic insists that, at its events, it controls the guest list, does not promise access to government officials, and places no question off-limits. These measures are far from panaceas, but they’re not meaningless, either.

Descriptions of the Atlantic salons, meanwhile, suggest sponsors may be paying as much for an experience as for access—that is, for the sense of exclusivity gleaned from sitting around a table with high-level journalists and political insiders. Viewed this way, the events evoke not so much a smoke-filled room as a gated intellectual community–a rare place where, as Atlantic Media Chairman David Bradley put it, “purposeful, engaged, constructive conversation across walls” can occur. (Jack Shafer may go too far in parts of his Slate screed on this topic, but he accurately identifies the air of intellectual vanity that statement carries: “Going off the record is what Washingtonians do to make themselves feel important.”)

Worth noting, too, is that this isn’t only about The Atlantic and the Post. Politico wrote last week about off-the-record events offered by The Wall Street Journal and The Economist, describing a pair of summits about Mexico and Brazil the latter will host this fall. But portions of The Economist’s many, many other conferences may also be off the record; the program for a two-day roundtable on Portugal the publication hosted in January, for example, notes that comments at three of the seven sessions were not for publication.

There’s a difference in transparency, though, between a private salon and an event that’s open to the public, even one that’s off-the-record. According to a spokesperson for The Economist, all the company’s conferences are “broadly marketed,” “open to anyone who pays the delegate fee” and “open to credentialed media”; sponsors are also disclosed on the Web. Even if The Atlantic’s salons are as innocuous as its staff members insist, the lack of specific details still grates.

And, full disclosure, the Columbia Journalism Review holds a semi-annual breakfast event/salon aimed at helping gather support for our business desk, The Audit. We explain ourselves here.

Faltering revenue streams, of course, are what lead so many publications to embrace live events as a way to extend their brand and underwrite their reporting. The closed-door sessions that have recently captured attention are far outnumbered by on-the-record events that convene journalists and their subjects with support from a sponsor or a paying audience. A far-from-comprehensive list: National Journal hosts policy breakfasts, CQ offers both forums and summits, The Atlantic is a co-presenter of the Aspen Ideas Festival, and The New Yorker hosts its own annual festival.

Not all the ethical questions in play here go away just because an event is on the record. There’s the obvious concern about a publication becoming indebted to a sponsor, or razing the wall between editorial and advertising.. But beyond that, if a key government official or business leader, by agreeing to participate, helps a publication attract sponsors or paying customers, does he or she expect–-or get–-the benefit of the doubt in future coverage? And are news organizations, in some of these cases, selling their access to influential decision-makers? (CQ, whose publisher, Keith White, declined to comment because the company is in the midst of a sale, touts its summits as a way “to seamlessly integrate federal, state and local policy objectives in a single, ‘turn-key’ program” on its Web site.)

At the same time, these events may have value in and of themselves, to say nothing of the role they play in underwriting reporting. And it’s not clear that many of the ethical challenges they pose are different in kind from those that affect any news organization as it covers a major advertiser (or, in the case of non-profits, a donor). All of journalism’s funding mechanisms are ethically fraught, and as publications become less and less confident about their ability to attract revenue, those tensions inevitably increase.

Any time money changes hands on a matter of public or political interest, we get suspicious—no less so when the media is involved then when a politician is the recipient. But transparency is the best way to address and soothe these suspicions. Readers deserve to know where the salon money comes from, and they deserve a full accounting of what sponsors are receiving in exchange for their support. As one commenter wrote at The Atlantic’s Web site, “I still like to know who is buying me my news and editorials, since I am apparently not paying for it myself.” “Trust us” isn’t good enough for the government. It shouldn’t be good enough for journalists, either.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.