News accounts in recent days have raised questions about a Washington Post plan to host a small dinner attended by lobbyists, government officials, and editorial staff from the newspaper. On Monday afternoon, Atlantic Media Chairman David Bradley sent this note to staff at Atlantic, National Journal, and Government Executive on the company’s policies on these matters.
Colleagues and Friends:
Earnest being my strong suit, I don’t know that I ever have stir-the-world words in me. This early July writing surely won’t. So as to a topic suddenly in our Washington news, I will go for direct instead. As there is no secret here, you may know much of this detail already. Even so, I think it is right that these words come from me directly, over my signature (if that image still pertains).
For a half dozen years, Atlantic Media has been hosting sponsored salon dinners in Washington and around the U.S. I don’t believe that any one of these events had any of the ill intention or effect that some have attributed to The Washington Post concept. But we live on a street too close to the brush fire to pretend no interest. So what I thought I might do is give the detail of the Atlantic Media dinners, address some of the concerns I’m reading now on the Web, explain the virtue I see in this work and end with a personal statement and caveat. Please forgive me if this runs long.
Let me begin by saying that I won’t distance myself from this issue. From some of our earliest events, I have been part of the thinking behind this work. I’ve approved many sponsored dinners personally, sent out my own invitations, hosted some dinners at my house, welcomed the sponsors in my remarks and written thank you notes to those involved. I am a part of this work. Openly.
So, if I may, let me give you some detail about salon dinners.
Atlantic Media’s particular niche is hosting dinner conversations, focused on current events issues, where we succeed in bringing all sides of the issue to the table. In general, the dinners include two- to three-dozen guests drawn from a score of institutions – corporations, associations, NGOs, universities, think tanks, government, and other media companies – as well as individual authors and activists. The ambition, almost always realized, is to have all sides of an issue present – conservatives and liberals, conservative think tanks and liberal think tanks, corporations and consumer groups, all manner of associations and all manner of environmental, health advocacy and public interest groups. The art here is bringing disparate parties to table for a constructive conversation.
The larger number of our Atlantic Media dinners are sponsored, though I host some for my own interest and on my own account. (Please note that the whole of this discussion concerns dinners that we do with clients. As you may have read, I personally convene a group of journalists to conduct off-the-record conversations with individuals in the news. Those dinners are covered by me personally and have no sponsorship involvement or support.)
Of our events that are sponsored, most are sponsored by corporations, though nonprofits and foundations have sponsored dinners as well. 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.
The dinners usually run about two and a half hours. If I am there, I give welcoming remarks and thank the sponsor. Most of the time, the sponsor responds with his or her own welcoming remarks. Then, and for the remainder, our moderator – typically an Atlantic Media editor or writer, though sometimes a journalist from another enterprise – directs the whole table in conversation. There is no constraint placed on either the moderator or our guests as to the questions raised or the opinions expressed. My presence – as to all things – tends to dampen high spirits. But even when I am there, the conversations are pretty highly engaged, with one or more issues that divide the group.
When Atlantic Media hosts public-policy dinners in Washington, we usually – though not always – invite members of Congress or the Executive Branch to attend as well. Never the object of the conversation, they generally constitute one to four of the total of, say, 30 guests present. There is a set of public rules governing the participation of officials in private events. Atlantic Media follows these rules – in letter and in spirit.
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.