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.
Let me turn to some of the concerns I’ve seen raised since The Washington Post controversy began.
Secrecy: Atlantic Media has been hosting public-policy dinners for a half-dozen years. Our work is not hidden within the enterprise or from the outside. Over the years, we have sent out thousands of invitations to these events. Two thousand guests have been in attendance. Further, from the beginning, we have included, as guests, journalists from virtually all major networks, national magazines and newspapers; scores of journalists have been our guests across the last six years, many more than once.
Atlantic Media Motives: Isn’t this just commercial? In part. As the whole of our enterprise surely knows, the economic foundation beneath journalism is falling away. Ten years ago, 55% of The Atlantic’s revenues derived from print advertising. Today, that figure is 29%. I think I will be more comfortable, still, when that dependence falls below 20%. The imperative, as I see it, is to rebuild journalism on different financial pillars. One of them, and not inconsequential to us, is events – of all types.
I say “in part,” above, because I believe the dinners, themselves, perform a good purpose. Perhaps the guests merely are being polite, but the uniform comment – on leaving or in thank you notes – is that they find no other place for such purposeful, engaged, constructive conversation across walls. Are dinners my highest faith system, my most important belief? No. But, I see the Atlantic Media dinners as a certain good in Washington.
Off-the-Record: The decision to convene our dinners off-the-record was made at the outset. In the vocabulary we used at that time, we were hoping to avoid the “canned remarks and rehearsed sound bites” that come with much public-policy discussion. My own view is that there is a great deal of constructive conversation that can take place only with the promise that no headline is being written. Everyone – maybe even especially journalists – relies on this confidence in his day-to-day work.
This said, I do want to be teachable. I could understand editors or writers deciding they prefer to participate only in on-the-record conversations. I care more about editorial integrity than I do about any particular undertaking; you can trust that, as to this issue, I am fully engaged.
Editorial Staff Involvement: From the first, the dinners were the conception of our publishing staff. They were, and are, one of our revenue streams. But, as noted above, I believe the dinners advance a legitimate purpose for a media organization – promoting debate and discussion.