Why isn't the press corps more interested in covering the Bilderberg conference?

Media criticism.
June 9 2008 8:32 PM

The Bilderberg "Blackout"

The press corps' noncoverage of that weekend conference in Chantilly, Va.

Henry Kissinger. Click image to expand.
Henry Kissinger

About this time each year, the Bilderberg group convenes a weekend conference in a hotel or resort somewhere in North America or Europe in which 120 or so billionaires, bankers, politicians, industrialists, scholars, government officials, influentials from labor and education, and journalists assemble to discuss world affairs in private.

This year, the 56th Bilderberg meeting took place over the weekend at the Westfields Marriott in Chantilly, Va., seven miles from Washington Dulles International Airport. As in previous years, Bilderberg critics are berating the mainstream press for observing a "blackout" of a group they believe directs a secret, shadow government.

The critics claim that Bilderberg grooms future American presidents and future British prime ministers, pointing to Bill Clinton's attendance in 1991 and Tony Blair's in 1993. Time magazine reported in 2004 that John Edwards impressed attendees at the Bilderberg session in Italy, after which John Kerry asked him to join his presidential ticket.

According to the 1980 bookTrilateralism: The Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World Management, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was enthusiastic about sending staffers to Bilderberg, President John F. Kennedy drew heavily from Bilderberg alumni—Dean Rusk, George W. Ball, George McGhee, Walter Rostow, Arthur Dean, and Paul Nitze—to staff his administration, and many Carter administration officials had attended the retreat.

According to a list published by one critic, the attendees of Bilderberg 2008 include Henry Kissinger, Ben S. Bernanke, David Rockefeller, Vin Weber, Henry Kravis, Robert B. Zoellick, Donald Graham, Vernon Jordan, Charlie Rose, and their equals from Europe. Protestors staked out the elite at the hotel's entrance and recorded "surveillance" videos inside and outside the minimum-security facility before the event commenced.

About this much the Bilderberg critics are right: The mainstream media ignored Bilderberg 2008. According to Nexis, Wonkette and Raw Story noted the event and the critics' objections on the Web. A simple Web search produces Bilderberg detractors Alex Jones and Jim Tucker sounding their alarms.

And about this, too, the Bilderberg critics are right: The meeting of 120 prominent world figures probably constitutes some kind of news. Yet to be fair to the mainstream press, it's tough to report from a private gathering locked down tight by professional security.

Bilderberg organizers expect participants to keep the weekend's discussions off-the-record, stating in a press release this year that "the privacy of the meetings has no purpose other than to allow participants to speak their minds openly and freely." Bilderberg isn't the only international group that asks participants to zip their lips. The United Kingdom's Chatham House enshrined such a rule back in 1927, and similar requirements apply at some Council on Foreign Relations and Aspen Strategy Group meetings, just to name a few. Private groups meet in almost every town in the world for confidential chats. It's the way of the world. Bilderberger gab does occasionally leak, as with John Edwards' 2004 talk, but the poshes and powerful generally zip their lips.

What do you suppose would result if, say, the Washington Post had assigned a reporter to Chantilly's luminary jamboree? The Associated Press sent a reporter to cover the 1978 Bilderberger session in Princeton, N.J., but all he filed was a scene piece describing "men in gray suits and sunglasses" chasing him away from the "off limits" grounds of the Henry Chauncey Conference Center. From that dispatch (by Steve Hindy):

Kissinger casually strolled around a small manmade pond Saturday, coming within a few feet of the road leading into the complex.

He circled the pond twice, first with a gray-haired pipe-smoking man and then with a younger man. Kissinger appeared grave and attentive while the men talked of things like "range limitations."

Kissinger looked annoyed and declined comment when approached by a reporter.

One of two Secret Service agents trailing the former secretary nodded sympathetically saying, "You've got to give it your best shot."

And yet the "mainstream press" can hardly be accused of blacking out Bilderberg. The New York Times has mentioned Bilderberg a couple dozen times since 1981, according to Nexis, including in a 2004 piece titled "A Secret Conference Thought To Rule the Word." Other pieces in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Globe refer to the group. Just last month, Anne-Marie Slaughter mentioned the Bilderbergers in her Post review of a new book, Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making.

Of course, Bilderberg critics don't want to read mentions in the press. They want to see confirmation of their theories that the group operates in a sinister, behind-the-scenes fashion to exploit the powerless and throttle liberty.

How, exactly, are reporters supposed to do that when the critics rarely provide falsifiable evidence of Bilderberg malevolence? Would a shadow government, should it exist, really convene annually at a hotel to hash out the world's fate? Would it really issue a press release about its latest meeting? Would it routinely assume the security risks of inviting new blood in? (Couldn't the notorious Bilderberger Conrad Black negotiate his way out of prison by exposing the group? Or is Bilderberg so powerful that it controls the federal prison system, too?) It largely limits its attendees to North Americans and Europeans. Are the Japanese, Indians, Chinese, Brazilians, Australians, South Koreans, and Singaporean so timid that they stand aside and let the Bilderbergers have their way with the world without making a peep?

That's not to say the critics' inquiries never produce anything of value. I enjoy reading the documentary material they dig up and can only encourage them to dig deeper. Just last month, Barack Obama tapped a prominent Bilderberger, James A. Johnson, to vet possible vice presidential candidates. Johnson provided similar veep vetting for the Democratic Party in 2004—which, as noted above, resulted in the selection of a Bilderberg attendee. The AP also reports that Johnson helped Walter Mondale pick a veep nominee in 1984.

Who is Jim Johnson? He's the former head of Fannie Mae, a power on Wall Street, and a regular Bilderberg attendee. As recently as 2006, Johnson has been the treasurer of the nonprofit American Friends of Bilderberg Inc., according to the group's Form 990 on file at Guidestar.org. According to the fractured jargon of the filing, American Friends of Bilderberg is in the business of "Organizing & sponsoring conferences which study & discuss significant problems of the Western Alliance. Collaborating on the Bilderberg meetings held in Europe & North America." The group spent $112,533 in 2006.

Still, the fact that an active Democratic supporter has performed return duty as a veep vetter stops several stations short of arriving at a shadow government. It does, however, indicate that Johnson's political influence may be underscrutinized by the press and that his career is deserving of extra study and attention. A May 24Wall Street Journal story, "Power Broker Helps Obama Search for Running Mate," does just that. Although it makes no mention of Johnson's Bilderberg connection, it drops a gentle dig that associates Johnson's Fannie Mae service with the home-loan crisis.

Without a doubt, Bilderberg ends up stimulating speculations that it's a nefarious organization. In an earlier generation, some theorists regarded the Council on Foreign Relations as a similar shadow government for its furtive ways. But as the CFR opened up in recent decades, holding many sessions on the record, it has become as threatening as the World Economic Forum at Davos.

Maybe there's a lesson in there for the Bilderbergers. Letting the press in for a closer look at what goes on would go a long way to reduce the shouting while preserving the group's right to think out loud. Or maybe all the heavy security and skulking about is a deliberate marketing ploy by Bilderberg to differentiate its yacht cruise from the ocean voyage that is Davos.

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.