Talking Points Memo's Zachary Roth has highlighted similarities between Atlantic Media's 'salon dinners' and the highly controversial evenings advertised by the Washington Post which provoked outrage last week and were swiftly cancelled.
According to Roth, "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." He believes it is something that other outlets have actually been doing for years. TPM obtained a flyer advertising The Atlantic's dinners which it describes as "private, custom, off-the-record conversations of 20-30 key influential individuals, moderated by an Atlantic editor." The flier is not dated.
Roth spoke to an Atlantic spokesman, Zachary Hooper, who confirmed that the Atlantic has held approximately 100 such events since 2003. Hooper also told Roth that the dinners are generally initiated by the corporation that pays for them. The flier advertises a "sampling of attendees" including a list of journalists such as George Stephanopoulos, Fred Hiatt or Maureen Dowd, as well as a list of politicians. Hence, Roth points out, the events appear "strikingly similar" to those the Post planned to offer.
There are some differences, however, Roth believes. Hooper was clear that the magazine tries to assemble a guest list that would allow journalists and politicians in attendance to hear a range of viewpoints. Atlantic Media's chairman David Bradley also seems confident that there is a difference, and wrote an email to all employees explaining why, extracts of which were published on the Atlantic's website. He wrote that "to my mind, and central to our thinking, the size of our dinners, the presence of outside reporters and the representation of all manner of opposing views have worked well to keep conversation at the level of debate - not advancing any one party's interests."
Bradley explained that "Sponsors may have input on the evening but, by contract, Atlantic Media keeps control of both the topic for conversation and the guests to be invited." He stressed that the events have never been secret, and that although carried out "in part" for financial reasons, he also thinks that they are good for Washington. And he believes in the necessity of such events being off-the-record, adding that "our editors would say the public-policy discussions help as background in their thinking and writing." Journalists from other publications are also invited. Bradley, like WaPo's Katharine Weymouth, claims not to have seen the marketing materials, such as the flier obtained by TPM, which might be misleading.
While Weymouth is launching an internal review process at the Post, it seems that other publications might have fewer qualms about such events. The Wall Street Journal and the Economist are among those cited as hosting similar discussions, as well as the Atlantic. As advertising's capacity to support newsgathering falls, it is natural and right that publishers seek other revenue streams, and using their contacts to do this is justifiable. Publishers must be careful, however, not to cross the line into organizing events that threaten their and their journalists' credibility.