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At These Dinners, Candor Is The Entree

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 27, 2009

Last Tuesday evening, Rahm Emanuel quietly slipped into an eighth-floor office at the Watergate.

As white-jacketed waiters poured red and white wine and served a three-course salmon and risotto dinner, the White House chief of staff spent two hours chatting with some of Washington's top journalists -- excusing himself to take a call from President Obama and another from Hillary Clinton.

As the journalists hurled questions and argued among themselves, Emanuel said: "This feels a lot like a Jewish family dinner."

For more than a year, David Bradley, the Atlantic's soft-spoken owner, has hosted these off-the-record dinners at a specially built table in his glass-enclosed office overlooking the Potomac. And the guests, from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to Jordan's King Abdullah II, are as A-list as they come.

"It's just a joy for me," Bradley says. "These are reflective, considered conversations, which is hard to do when you're going after headlines for the next day's publication." While the guests seem quite open, says the businessman who bought the Atlantic a decade ago, he is new enough to journalism "that I can't tell the difference between genuine candor and deeply rehearsed candor."

Emanuel says he enjoyed the chance to "put aside the adversarial. . . . I tried to be honest and frank and hope they felt that way. They want context, they want thinking. You're not selling, you're presenting."

Still, the catered gatherings also sound rather cozy, like some secret-handshake gathering of an entrenched elite. Are the top-level officials, strategists and foreign leaders there for serious questioning or risk-free spin sessions? And what exactly is the journalistic benefit if the visitors are protected by a shield of anonymity?

The guests "have either been frank with us or provided a reasonable facsimile of frankness," says Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg. "Would I like for them to be able to go on the record? Of course. But I do think you lose something because then it becomes just another press conference."

Among those in regular attendance are David Brooks and Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, Gene Robinson and Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post, NBC's David Gregory, ABC's George Stephanopoulos, PBS's Gwen Ifill, the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, Vanity Fair's Todd Purdum, former Time managing editor Walter Isaacson and staffers from Bradley's Atlantic and National Journal, including Ron Brownstein, Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch.

Atlantic Editor James Bennet, along with Goldberg, pitched the idea to Bradley as a way of raising the company's profile. "David, being almost ridiculously generous, said: 'Why don't we invite some of your colleagues?' " Goldberg recalls.

Bradley, a native Washingtonian, had long been intrigued by the Sperling breakfasts, the 35-year ritual conducted by the Christian Science Monitor's Godfrey Sperling until his retirement. But those were on-the-record affairs open to any hungry journalist, while Bradley's dinners are both uber-exclusive and decidedly discreet.

Politicians have been sharing off-the-record meals and drinks with reporters roughly forever. During the transition, Obama attended a three-hour dinner with conservative columnists at George Will's Chevy Chase home.

The Bradley dinners are different because of their regular nature -- a floating group of 12 to 16 journalists, with specialists added depending on the subject matter -- and the rarefied level of access. Others who have dined include General Electric chief executive Jeffrey Immelt, former Bush White House aide Karl Rove, Gen. David Petraeus, White House economic adviser Larry Summers, former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Bradley always begins the questioning and tries to maintain a civil tone, while the journalists tend to pursue their favorite subjects. At the dinner with Emanuel, who waved off the shortcake dessert, participants said that Brownstein asked about health-care reform, Goldberg pushed on Iran and Mayer pressed him about torture techniques in terror interrogations.

When the group challenged King Abdullah over his comments on U.S. responsibilities for stability in Iraq, Queen Rania interjected: "We didn't ask you to invade."

One reporter asked the king whether he agreed with that statement.

"What she said," his majesty replied.

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 Mayer.

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."

The veil of secrecy has prevented the Atlantic from garnering any credit, at least until now. "I launched it for the romance of it," Bradley says. "It's more book club than it is clubhouse."

Boosting Obama

The networks have given President Obama more coverage than George W. Bush and Bill Clinton combined in their first months -- and more positive assessments to boot.

In a study to be released today, the Center for Media and Public Affairs and Chapman University found the nightly newscasts devoting nearly 28 hours to Obama's presidency in the first 50 days. (Bush, by contrast, got nearly eight hours.) Fifty-eight percent of the Obama evaluations were positive on the ABC, CBS and NBC broadcasts, compared with 33 percent positive in the comparable period of Bush's tenure and 44 percent positive for Clinton. (Evaluations by officials from the administration or political parties were not counted.)

On Fox News, by contrast, only 13 percent of the assessments of Obama were positive on the first half of Bret Baier's "Special Report," which most resembles a newscast. The president got far better treatment in the New York Times, where 73 percent of the assessments in front-page pieces were positive.

A striking contrast: Obama's personal qualities drew more favorable coverage than his policies, with 32 percent of the sound bites positive on CBS, 31 percent positive on NBC and 8 percent positive on Fox.

Footnote: Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs, for his part, gives White House reporters "a strong A," telling CNN's Wolf Blitzer that they ask "tough questions each and every day."

That Was Then

Fourteen months ago, reporter Todd Smith was covering a city council meeting in Missouri when a gunman charged in and started firing, killing five people. Smith was shot in the right hand.

"I definitely felt my life was in danger. I called my boss and said I wouldn't be able to write about it because I've been shot in the hand," says Smith, who required two operations to repair the damage.

Last week the Suburban Journals, a unit of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, laid him off along with other staffers. "I was shocked," says Smith, 37. "It was a lot to take a bullet for a newspaper." The paper did not return calls.

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