So why Bradley's elaborate defense of the off-the-record rules? Going off the record is what Washingtonians do to make themselves feel important. By placing his paid salons off the record and charging high prices, Bradley makes them appear exclusive, valuable, and daring. The sponsors feel important because they think they're impressing their audience with their frankness and because they're encouraged into thinking that the off-the-record journalists and politicians are sharing electric insights they could never share with their readers. The politicians, well, the politicians live in their own cognitive dissonance bubble. Any audience will do.
The rest of the country knows how badly off-the-record stinks. In 2004, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's handler invited several regional reporters to meet his boss after he gave a speech in Omaha, Neb. Wolfowitz's comments would have to be attributed to a "senior Defense Department official," the handler said. The reporters replied that they and their editors had no interest in a no-name briefing. Besides, they noted, it was already public knowledge that Wolfowitz was the most senior Defense Department official in the region that day. Why the ridiculous sourcing arrangement? The standoff ended and the interview commenced when Wolfowitz agreed to go on the record.
If paid off-the-record salons are charades, why oppose them? For one thing, I hate to see anybody defrauded, even AstraZeneca. For another, no journalist should serve as an accomplice to fraud. But most important, the off-the-record comfort zones run by Bradley for the benefit of his corporate clients corrupt the business of journalism in deep, fundamental ways. Every new off-the-record venue drives a measurable quantity of political discourse out of the public sphere and into the private. It's in the interests of journalists and the public, as the Omaha press corps demonstrated, to push the powerful onto the record. Establishing safe harbors for them—and charging them for the privilege of anchorage—is not what journalism is about. The erection of such salons says this to corporations and public officials: You owe your candor not to the public but to one another, and journalistic organizations such as the Atlanticand the Washington Post will gladly pocket the cash to help you keep your "secrets."
If David Bradley doesn't understand this, will somebody please underwrite a public debate to fill him in?
More silly self-effacement from David Bradley's memo: "[T]his is a modest brag, I think I'm well suited to convening intelligent, committed people across wide divides." Where does he get this crap, Toastmasters International? Send Toastmaster tips via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. I polish my speaking skill several times a day through my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)