The National Press Club, a century-old shrine to freedom of the press, did not live up to its slogan Wednesday. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

I’d like to tell you what Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said at the National Press Club on Wednesday about recent developments in the war against the Islamic State. The diplomat, who resigned in protest earlier this year because he found it “ever harder to justify our policy” in Syria, had some valuable insights.

I’d also like to tell you what Caitlin Hayden, official spokeswoman for President Obama’s National Security Council, had to say in that very same National Press Club ballroom a few hours later.

But I’m afraid I can’t tell you — because the speeches they gave were off the record. They were so declared at the last minute by the group of defense contractors that hosted the event.

It’s unseemly for current and former government officials to be hobnobbing privately with government contractors. But it’s a whole other level of outrage for them to do it at the National Press Club — a century-old shrine to the free press — and to forbid journalists to report what they say.

The group of contractors, the International Stability Operations Association, had issued a news release announcing the meeting at the press club, saying nothing about media restrictions. Reuters put the event on its news wire. But when reporters and camera crews came to cover Ford, they were turned away. ISOA official Malala Elston, after consulting with Ford, told me I could listen to his remarks as long as I didn’t write about what he said.

The fiasco undermines Ford’s reputation as a truth-teller; now out of government, he apparently prefers to tell his truths privately to DynCorp and the other government contractors who sponsored Wednesday’s event. (I called him twice after the speech to request that he put his remarks on the record but received no return call.) It doesn’t look good for Hayden, either.

But the episode probably says more about the decline of the once-grand National Press Club (photos on its walls commemorate events with Nixon, Mandela and Gorbachev), which has been hurt badly by the contraction in the news business. Its membership has shriveled from 5,500 to 3,100, and 1,400 of those are PR professionals. (The number of flacks would be higher, but bylaws limit them to 45 percent of membership.) The current president, a retired journalist, is a George Washington University professor.

The club still hosts “newsmaker” events (200 to 300 per year) and rents out space for others’ news conferences (400 to 600 per year), but to make ends meet it is also expanding its catering business. These are “private” events such as weddings, bar mitzvahs and Wednesday’s session in the ballroom with Ford and the NSC spokeswoman.

“This is a pretty gray area,” William McCarren, the club’s executive director, acknowledged.

Quite gray, because this “private” group blasted out a press release on PRWeb. And even grayer, because the press club’s director of business development, Brian Taylor, defended the defense contractors’ decision to ban press coverage even while benefiting from the prestige of the National Press Club.

“Any event facility has both public and private events, just as we do,” he said.

So the National Press Club is the same as a Marriott renting out its ballroom?”

“For this particular event, yes.”

So I listened to Ford for an hour. I don’t think it violates the ground rules to say that he had a funny line about Kurds and that he likes the Baltimore Orioles.

I can’t tell you more, though, because you weren’t one of those lucky government contractors in the room. Sadly, the National Press Club, once a temple to the free flow of information, has been compelled to adopt the rule that drives so much else in Washington: pay to play.

Twitter: @Milbank

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