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The Media Elite's Secret Dinners

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 27, 2009 7:54 AM

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 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 the New Yorker's 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 evaluations of Obama 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 either political party 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.

Meet the Buckleys

If you missed yesterday's piece on Christopher Buckley's fascinating and not always flattering memoir of growing up with Mum and Pup, it's worth checking out.

More Torture Talk

I have rarely seen the kind of passion that now surrounds the torture debate, even more, it seems, than when it was going on. Arianna Huffington rips the coverage:

"It is a test of our courage and our convictions. A test of whether we are indeed a nation of laws -- or a nation that pays lip service to the notion of being a nation of laws.

"And everyone engaged in our public conversation has a role to play.

"So far, the media are not getting high marks. They can't seem to shake their addiction to looking at every issue -- even one that pivots on questions of morality, not politics -- through the archaic prism of right vs. left.

"So we got CNN's Ed Henry mainlining a right-left 8-ball at Tuesday's press briefing, asking Robert Gibbs, 'Is this an example of this White House giving in to pressure from the left?'

"And we got the Washington Post's Dan Balz saying -- in two different pieces -- that Obama's release of the torture memos 'has stirred a major controversy on the right and left.' According to Balz, 'the anger on the right was expected. But Obama faces equally strong reaction from the left, where there is a desire to punish Bush administration officials for their actions' . . .

"Since when is the need to adhere to the laws that govern us a left-wing 'point of view'? Is Thou Shalt Not Kill a 'point of view'? When the police arrest a rapist, is it because rape is inherently, inarguably wrong -- or because that's the cops' 'point of view'?

"Isn't torture one of those things where there really is no legitimate other side?"

A great debating point, but some conservatives and Bush partisans of the Cheney stripe continue to argue that the techniques were justified and stopped short of torture (although even the military agency that first scrutinized them in 2002 challenged the methods, and referred to them as torture). The press doesn't have to accept that argument, but it can't pretend it doesn't exist.

The New Republic's John Judis doesn't want to, as they say, look backward:

"I think President Obama did the right thing in releasing the torture memos and also in rejecting the call for further investigations and for prosecutions. It's not a question of whether I think John Yoo and Jay Bybee and the CIA officials who even exceeded the bounds of these memos deserve some kind of punishment. They do, but not at the hands of the federal government. And not now.

"My reasoning, I have to admit, is entirely prudential. Recriminations don't work unless the country is fairly united behind them -- think of Germany and Japan after World War II. In the case of these post-Bush recriminations, Obama's own administration is divided. Look at the results of the Church Committee and other post-Watergate investigations into intelligence abuses before, during, and after the Vietnam War. They made interesting reading, but also for an ugly debate over the 'Vietnam syndrome.' A decade later, a new director William Casey was committing even worse abuses at the CIA."

NYT ombudsman Clark Hoyt says the paper's editors debated before upgrading the description of torture techniques from "harsh" to "brutal."

98 Days and Counting

MSNBC's Richard Wolffe says the administration has been gearing up for the inevitable anniversary:

"Senior White House aides say there were initial plans to pre-empt the 100-day holiday and look firmly ahead to the next 100 days and beyond. What better way to avoid the hubris of a 'Mission Accomplished' banner, especially at a time when thousands of Americans are losing their jobs each month? The early plan was to deliver a future-focused speech ahead of the 100 days: They were so forward-looking, they would even beat the 100-day marker itself.

"But that was rejected as largely impractical. How could the president look to the future without recounting recent history and his own past? Would a forward-looking perspective sound too much like a collection of predictions and promises? Could they really leave the retrospectives to a media struggling with its own existential gloom?

"What they settled on is splitting the difference, a classically Obama-esque compromise in government. To reach their ultimate goal, they need to recount how far they have already made it. The long march to a transformational presidency takes more patience than the press can muster. It may well take more time than any conventional honeymoon in politics. Call it the obstinacy of hope."

Can Obama blow it? That's the question Reihan Salam examines at the Daily Beast:

"Insofar as America has been suffering from an emotional rut, Obama's mix of sobriety and optimism really has worked like magic. Eventually, though, the magic will run out, and I'm guessing it will run out before the next presidential election.

"We're only three months into the Obama era, and it's worth remembering that the president's Himalayan approval rating is hardly unprecedented. At 65 percent, the president's approval rating is nowhere near the bizarrely high 83 percent Ronald Reagan reached after his first 100 days. Granted, Obama has the added advantage of facing a self-immolating opposition party. It's extremely hard to imagine the Republicans getting their act together in the near future, and by the near future I mean 'the next decade.' Yet Republicans don't actually need to get their act together to defeat Obama in 2012. The coming economic apocalypse will do the job for them.

"Despite my congenital optimism, I increasingly get the sense--a sense that's reinforced by my conversations with economic pointy-heads--that the economic crisis is actually accelerating, and that the latest round of good news represents the beginning of a pseudo-recovery that might actually make matters worse over the long run . . .

"The Establishment--the academic and policy elite, Wall Street, famous sexy people--are more invested in Obama than they've been in any president in decades. If Obama fails, a whole system will go down with him."

Peggy Noonan seems to like O's style, but not his substance:

"What makes it hard at the moment to write sympathetically of Barack Obama is the loud chorus of approbation arising from his supporters in journalism as they mark the hundred days. Drudge calls it the 'Best President Ever' campaign. It is marked by an abandonment of critical thinking among otherwise thoughtful men and women who comprise, roughly speaking, the grown-ups of journalism, the old hands of the MSM who have been through many presidents and should know better. They are insisting too much. If they were utterly confident, they wouldn't be . . .

"Is Mr. Obama putting a new style and approach on the age? Yes. On the occasion of the hundred days one can say: So far, so good. (We are limiting this discussion to foreign policy because in terms of domestic policy there are only so many ways to say 'Oy.') There is an air of moderation, a temperate approach. Mr. Obama shakes hands with everyone, as is appropriate, for if American presidents dined only with leaders of high moral caliber and democratic disposition, they'd often sit alone at the table of nations."

So-far-so-good isn't a terrible judgment from a Reagan speechwriter.

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