Perhaps because I am reading William Greider’s new book, I’m primed (as us J-schoolers like to say) to see offenses against democracy all over the place, but news comes today that bothers me. Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post has a sordid tale of private dinners that the owner of the Atlantic has been hosting for the past year. David Bradley brings together major political and business players (think everyone from Rahm Emanuel to Jeffrey Immelt to King Abdullah) for a catered meal with a select group of journalists. The wine and three-course dinners are served by waiters, while the talk is apparently lively and almost entirely off the record.
Most of the journalists like the format, which has allowed for a handful of comments to be placed on the record with the guest’s consent. ‘The exchanges you have with people in power are so artificial that we wanted to get to know them better and find out what they really think,’ says [the New Yorker's Jane] Mayer.[Ruth] Marcus, a Post columnist and editorial writer, says the sessions ‘have been very valuable, partly because it’s a relaxed setting, not a set of gotcha moments.'”
Well, sheeeeyit, I’d like a damn catered dinner too. But that’s not really the work of the Fourth Estate, is it? “A handful of comments” after more than a year of dinners?! This is why we know sweet Fanny Adams about what goes on in the world, because journos have become a big old part of the establishment. When they start touting the “relaxed” atmosphere of their last dinner with Karl Rove, they’re not really giving us the full skinny, are they? When they whine about gotcha moments, my eyes threaten to roll right out of my head. Interactions between journalists and the powerful politicians and business leaders who run this country don’t have to be confrontational, but they should be on the record.
The idea that reportage or even editorializing is helped by cozy, secretive wining and dining is utter BS. You can be civil and cultivate sources without making goo-goo eyes at them over candles and shortcake (NEWSFLASH: Rahm abstained from the shortcake.). Perhaps it’s because journalists are now professionals, not just night-owls with a knack for turning a phrase. I know it’s hard for press people, a nerdy bunch who are so glad to finally be playas that the smoke gets in their eyes when the BMOCs give them some attention. And, as any teacher or social worker can assure you, it’s hard to perform a vitally important role in society and not get much in the way of either pay or plaudits. But, suck it up, Washington journalists, and start acting like the vaguely redolent of whiskey ink-stained wretches on which our representative democracy so depends.