Howie Kurtz on “The Media Elite’s Secret Dinners”

It’s no big secret how the mainstream media was in the bag for President Obama during the course of the 2008 campaign season (and even before). It’s also no secret how they continue to be in the tank for the President, in spite of a rough and tumble first 100 days. In fact, I didn’t think it was humanly possible, but the MSM are actually more in the tank for Obama than they were for Bill Clinton, which speaks volumes when it comes to the popularity of both the man himself and his policies.

What hasn’t been well known until now is the fact that for the last year or so, “off-the-record” dinner meetings between mostly liberal elites in the media and mostly liberal movers and shakers have been held in DC at the Watergate. Howie Kurtz fills us in on the details:

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.”

For sure, and like why would left-wing journalists want to go on the record regarding any candid conversations they have with some of their favorite Beltway liberals during these “secret” dinners, anyway, right? Apparently, it’s all about “understanding” each other, not “getting the scoop.”

Lemme see: You have a group of liberal mainstream and opinion media journalists, and high-powered figures sitting down at a table together to eat a swanky meal, sip wine, and to … talk shop?

Just who are the regulars at these dinners?

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.

Sheesh. It’s no wonder Obama’s back pocket is so crowded.

And it’s no wonder he still continues to get fawning coverage in the press.

This story reminds me of the one that broke several weeks ago about the “secret” JournoList group, an online group of mostly prominent liberal opinion writers, reporters, and “policy wonks.” The “secret” group is, according to Michael Calderone at The Politico, a virtual echo chamber for liberals in the Beltway and beyond:

For the past two years, several hundred left-leaning bloggers, political reporters, magazine writers, policy wonks and academics have talked stories and compared notes in an off-the-record online meeting space called JournoList.

Proof of a vast liberal media conspiracy?

Not at all, says Ezra Klein, the 24-year-old American Prospect blogging wunderkind who formed JournoList in February 2007. “Basically,” he says, “it’s just a list where journalists and policy wonks can discuss issues freely.”

But some of the journalists who participate in the online discussion say — off the record, of course — that it has been a great help in their work. On the record, The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin acknowledged that a Talk of the Town piece — he won’t say which one — got its start in part via a conversation on JournoList. And JLister Eric Alterman, The Nation writer and CUNY professor, said he’s seen discussions that start on the list seep into the world beyond.

“I’m very lazy about writing when I’m not getting paid,” Alterman said. “So if I take the trouble to write something in any detail on the list, I tend to cannibalize it. It doesn’t surprise me when I see things on the list on people’s blogs.”

Last April, criticism of ABC’s handling of a Democratic presidential debate took shape on JList before morphing into an open letter to the network, signed by more than 40 journalists and academics — many of whom are JList members.

I should note for the record that the group’s founder, Ezra Klein, is getting ready to start blogging for the Washington Post.

In a post about the news regarding JournoList, Mark Hemingway wrote something at the time about it that also applies just as well to those elite secret dinners:

Further, one of the most valuable currencies in Washington is access to the press. The article notes that many stories have started on or been shaped by JournoList. If you’re a liberal blogger or activist, you can now push your story on the highest echelons of journalism with a quick email. If you’re a mainstream journalist, is it really ethical that you don’t give the opposing view equal access?

I think the real answer here is simply that there are no conservatives on the list because this just confirms — yet again — that mainstream journalists are privately hostile to conservative ideas and are somewhat committed to advancing liberal ones.

But good thing White House press secretary Robert Gibbs is denouncing the Republican “cabal.” They’re probably discussing what to do about that on the JournoList right now.

Bottom line: There’s a difference between a grassroots/think tank effort to institute change and that of groups of journalists – mainstream and opinion – rubbing elbows “off the record” with establishment liberals and other influential lefties in DC, as well as coordinating “change” efforts via secret groups designed to advance an agenda.

And if you were to ever encounter any of these people, and hear them tell you that they don’t know why it’s “such a big deal” to do this – that they have freedom of speech rights, too? Well, the fact of the matter is if JournoList and the Watergate dinners were “no big deal” then there would be no need for them to be kept secret.

Has there been a liberal media conspiracy all this time that no one has known about, one that has secretly met every day to talk about how to frame liberals and liberal policies in the best possible light while painting conservatives and their policies as cruel and heartless? Media watcher and former CBSr Bernard Goldberg has accurately written before that no such thing existed – that in fact that’s just how the media was. While the latter is true, it sounds like the former isn’t anymore. They may not be meeting every day, but liberal opinion writers, “mainstream” media journalists, policy wonks, and powerful DC movers and shakers etc are clinking glasses and spilling their guts “off the record” in a posh office overlooking the Potomac, while other agenda-driven liberals – journalists, bloggers, opinion writers – are exchanging policy ideas with each other on “secret” websites in coordinated efforts to influence public policy.

If you’ve ever wondered how it is that liberals and their ideas have gained so much traction over the last couple of years, now you know that the GOP’s scandals were far from the only reason.

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