Comment: Minor scandal uncovers a troubling meeting of minds

The pandemic offers a good opportunity to end the schmoozefests among officials and journalists.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

From the perspective of the Washington, D.C., women involved in “Girls’ Night Out,” the social gathering was friendly, professionally helpful, and harmless.

For about 10 years, they had been mingling at these soirees — well-known journalists including Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, Judy Woodruff of PBS and Norah O’Donnell of CBS, alongside women in politics and government, from both sides of the aisle. Typically, one of the journalists would host the event at her home. They often had a celebratory feeling, recognizing the launch of a book or an appointment to a high-level position.

And they largely stayed out of the public eye; until last week when one such event went embarrassingly public.

The 2018 party at the home of USA Today’s Washington bureau chief Susan Page was thrown for two Trump administration honorees, one of them Seema Verma, who had been appointed administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. A congressional investigation into Verma’s use of taxpayer funds to hire public-relations consultants found that about $3,000 went to Republican consultant Pam Stevens for her work organizing this party. As it happens, Stevens has had a longtime role managing the “Girls’ Night Out” guest lists; sending out invitations and gathering RSVPs. But in this case, she was also working for Verma, paid to elevate the Trump appointee’s “brand.”

Page personally paid more than $4,000 for catering, tips for the wait staff and other expenses, reported my colleague Jeremy Barr. She told me that she didn’t know that the government agency would be billed for the event in any way and was unaware of the client relationship between Stevens and Verma.

Already prominent as an author and as a regular on the Sunday political talk shows, Page is especially in the public eye at the moment because the Commission on Presidential Debates has chosen her to host the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 7.

Page told me Monday that journalists see such gatherings as “source development” or “networking” that ultimately benefits the reader or viewer. “I think of it as part of the job to build relationships and to develop sources,” she said in a phone interview. “When you’ve met someone face-to-face, they may tell you something they wouldn’t otherwise. Informal conversations like these are part of how you know what’s going on.”

She added: “I had no idea she [Pam Stevens] was monetizing this. We would not have proceeded with the event if we had known there was a client relationship.”

This dust-up is not the scandal of the century. And Page has a point: Good stories may emerge from the contacts made at these events. Journalism is about relationships, to a large degree.

Still, there’s a strong “ick” factor here; and not just because of the client relationship or the tax dollars involved.

It’s a tiny window into the too-cozy cocktail-party culture of Washington, in which media figures rub elbows with government and politics types, blurring the line of professional distance.

Source? Friend? Someone to blow the whistle on? Someone to protect? After a few glasses of sauvignon blanc, it can be hard to remember.

In the case of these all-female events, there has been something of a higher purpose: a chance for support and solidarity among women who, despite their success, still function within an often sexist world where most of the power still resides with men.

But to many Americans, already deeply distrustful of the news media — particularly of “access journalism” with its scoop-driven, anonymous sourcing — such gatherings look like the opposite of what they want the nation’s press to be doing: aggressively keeping government officials accountable on citizens’ behalf.

It’s the same mentality that has made the White House correspondents dinner so unseemly for so long; the rationale that it’s perfectly OK to enjoy yukking it up with the people you’re supposed to be covering. (After all, goes the thinking: It’s only one night a year, why not lay down arms, a little old-fashioned civility is good for the soul, etc.)

One of these “Girls’ Night Out” parties, back in 2017, featured none other than Kellyanne Conway as a guest of honor, the same Trump top adviser who consistently would go on cable and broadcast shows and brazenly lie to the American public on behalf of the boss, insufficiently challenged by her interviewers.

So, yes. Instead of holding politicians’ feet to the fire, journalists are too often chatting them up over canapes and cocktails. It calls to mind New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen’s observation about President Trump’s unspoken “brand promise” to his base, underlying his constant disparagement of the elite press: “Watch; I will put these people down for you.”

These days, of course, the threat of Covid-19 has interrupted the social scene. The party circuit is at a standstill. This year’s annual correspondents dinner was canceled, after nearly sputtering out in recent years.

Although there’s very little that’s positive about this awful moment in American history, the pandemic’s Great Pause does offer the opportunity for a reset in the elbow-rubbing relationship between pols and press.

“Girls’ Night Out” — and many other off-the-record schmoozefests that make Washington tick — should be retired, along with the correspondents’ dinner. And let’s never look back.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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