Mr. Sinclair Goes to Washington

Perhaps you’ve not yet heard of Larry Sinclair, the YouTube star who attests that in 1999 he shared coke, crack, and hot man-on-man action with Barack Obama sometime “between November 3 and November 9 in the Chicago, Illinois area.”

As Reason’s David Weigel quipped: “Which night? Eh, one of ‘em.”

Of course there’s absolutely nothing to substantiate this D-grade Hustler Letters fantasy knock-off. The only things that Sinclair’s story and the fawning commenters on his blog reveal is that an astonishing number of people are willing to believe just about anything, especially if it slanders a politician they don’t like.

But it looks like Sinclair is about to grab his moment in the sun—he’s planning a press conference in Washington, DC next Wednesday where he promises “for the first time [to] reveal the corroborating evidence.” Can’t wait.

Now where’s that going to be? At The National Press Club, of course.

The linkage of Sinclair’s seamy-slime to such an august sounding body understandably has people up in arms. Firedoglake, a big-league lefty blog, is encouraging readers to call the club and sign a petition in hopes of getting the event canceled. “Please take a moment to ask the National Press Club to check the facts before giving Larry Sinclair a bully pulpit,” the petition reads. Even the often too-cynical-by-half Wonkette blog is encouraging its readers to sign on.

The imbroglio hinges on the definition of “giving.” It’s hard to see a similar controversy arising if Sinclair had booked a conference room in a district hotel. But just like that hypothetical hotel, the press club—no matter its vaunted name—will rent to anyone provided they can scrape together the room fee, and if necessary, an additional security surcharge.

“I have never known us to deny a room based on content,” Sylvia Smith, the club’s president, told CJR. She acknowledges the club has gotten a higher volume of complaints about the event.

So to put highfalutin’ lipstick on what might seem to be pig manure, it seems we have a conflict of two journalism pillars—the right to be heard, and the responsibility not to pass on slander. Any thought of backing out? “We’re getting ready to announce our freedom of the press awards. How embarrassing would that be?” asks Smith. “C’mon!”

That admirable sentiment is mixed up with something else. “We have a $14 million dollar business,” says Smith, a reporter for The Journal Gazette of Ft. Wayne, Indiana. “Dues doesn’t cover that.”

“If I were a newsmaker and I wanted to have our own event, this is where I’d go,” says Smith. Renters get easy access to journalists and a name and location recognized through the city. For an additional fee—which Sinclair seems to have paid—the club will send a press release out over the wire. “That’s our business model,” says Smith who says the rentals and related services make up a “significant” portion of the club budget.

Is that an odd racket for an organization that’s nominally—and by other deeds—a journalistic institution? From time to time, probably. But the die was cast long ago, and renting to all comers (UFO conferences, genocidal regimes, whatever…) is a sure way to avoid accusations of editorializing-by-booking.

Event halls are not news organizations. But with a name like “The National Press Club,” it’s not hard to see how people could get confused—and upset.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.