National Press Club Events Should Never Be ‘Off the Record’

October 17, 2014

By Lena Williams via Newspaper Guild

The National Press Club won’t come right out and say it erred in allowing the media to be muzzled at an event featuring Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria.

But journalists’ outrage over the off-the-record speech Oct. 8 is forcing the club to review its policies about renting its meeting rooms to speakers who don’t want their comments reported.

The club violated its own principles by letting the International Stability Operations Association place last-minute media restrictions on Ford’s speech.

No press at an institution dedicated to America’s free press?

The century-old club for journalists and communications professionals was publicly excoriated in social media forums and news reports after Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote that he was barred from reporting on Ford’s speech because it was off-the-record.

“It’s unseemly for current and former government officials to be hobnobbing privately with government contractors,” Milbank wrote immediately after the event. “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.”

He’s right and the Press Club knows it.

Myron Belkind, president of the Press Club, all but admitted so when he called for a review of the club’s policy on room rentals during a Board of Governors meeting Oct. 10.

Because Ambassador Ford’s speech was booked by a private company, Belkind said the Press Club didn’t set the rules. “When the event is ours, the ground rules are ours,” he said. “When the event is organized by an outside group, they establish the ground rules. It is rare for events here to be off-the-record. Rare, but it does happen.”

I don’t want to sound sanctimonious, but off-the-record speeches should never be held at an historic bastion of press freedom whose stated mission is to “enhance the profession of journalism.”

In news reporting, if a source asks to go off the record, reporters can choose to accept or deny the request, and the source can choose to speak out or not.

Reporters had no such choice at the Press Club on Oct. 8. They were blindsided and mislead by the group of defense contractors sponsoring the event, according to Milbank.

A news release issued by the International Stability Operations Association said nothing about media restrictions. The event was listed on the Reuters news wire. But when reporters and camera crews showed up, an ISOA official turned them away. After protesting, Milbank was told he could listen to Ford’s remarks as long as he didn’t write about them.

It’s not the first time the Press Club has come under fire for silencing the very people it exists to serve. On February 2009, David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s campaign manager, delivered an off-the-record speech in a club meeting room rented by Georgetown University.

When word leaked out that the event wasn’t on the record, journalists protested and the Press Club president sent a letter of complaint to Plouffe’s agent. But Plouffe didn’t budge, and the club allowed the event to go on as scheduled – with Milbank in the audience wearing what the Huffington Post described as a “a make-shift sandwich board that read, ‘I’m non-Plouffe-d’ on one side and ‘un-Plouff-able’ on the other.”

The Press Club hosts more than 2,000 events a year. It depends more than ever on revenues from its event business, as members’ dues have declined along with jobs in the media industry.

Milbank reports that membership has dropped to 3,100 from a high of 5,500. And 1,400 of today’s members, nearly half, are public relations professionals.

From a financial standpoint, it’s easy to understand why the club doesn’t want to be too picky about who can book events at its downtown Washington headquarters.

But it must be picky. Having built its prestigious reputation hosting presidents, world leaders and newsmakers of every sort, the club can’t afford to put a “for sale” sign on its principles.

Belkind, the club president, says newsmakers, book tours and press freedom events are always on-the-record.

But that’s not enough for some club members, who believe the policy should apply to any and all individuals or groups that book events.

“If you rent here, it’s open to the press,” National Press Club member G.Wesley Pippert told the club’s annual meeting on Oct. 10.

Pippert, a retired UPI reporter who was the wire service’s senior Middle East correspondent in Jerusalem, said visitors to the club “must adhere to its press freedom ideals.”

Members were rightfully dismayed that the club’s leadership was slow to respond to Milbank’s column and a mention in Politico.

“The Press Club was silent on that and our reputation took a big hit,” former club President Jonathan Salant said at the meeting.

Even so, the Press Club seems ambivalent about how to handle future bookings. Belkind said it’s possible the club will ask clients to seek permission in advance to hold an off-the-record session.

That’s not good enough. The Press Club should bar off-the-record events on its premises, period. It has the clout, prestige and leverage to demand that outside companies adhere to the basic principles of a free press and the public’s right to know.

Washington is full of hotel meeting rooms that organizations and speakers can rent and turn the press away.

But the press should never be turned away from the Press Club.

Photo: Theodor Horydczak