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Banned from First Amendment Room


This morning, at the National Press Club, U.S. News and World Report held a press event to announce the release of its list of “America’s Best Leaders 2005.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

And it was paid for by the oil giant BP.

We saw a notice of the event on the National Press Club’s web site.

At the appointed time, we went over to the First Amendment Lounge to attend the event.

C-Span was covering it (Brian Lamb was chosen as one of the “best leaders” — as was Roger Ailes of Fox News, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, among others.)

So, we show up at the door to attend and are met by James Long, the man who organized the event for U.S. News and World Report.

Long tells us that we are not allowed into the press briefing.

Why not?

“Well, on all the notices, it said RSVP,” Long said. “And you didn’t RSVP.”

We didn’t see anything about RSVP. But okay, we’ll RSVP now.

“No, you won’t,” Long said. “You are not allowed in.”

We’re members of the National Press Club.

And we understand the policy of the Press Club — he who rents the room rules.

So, if BP and Harvard University and U.S. News and World Report rent the room, they decide who attends.

But the question is why?

Why, when all the press in the world were allowed in, were we not?

Well, it has to do with the last U.S. News and World Report event we attended at the Press Club, earlier this month.

It was titled, “Corporate America and Congress: Has Sarbanes-Oxley Restored Investor Confidence?”

And in an article published two weeks ago in Corporate Crime Reporter, we described how that event was paid for by Altria.

Altria?

A tobacco company paying for a conference on social responsibility?

That’s what we wanted to know.

The panelists at the Altria/U.S. News & World Report event were Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska), William J. McDonough, the chairman of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), John J. Castellini, president of the Business Roundtable, and Alyssa Machold Ellsworth, managing director of the Council of Institutional Investors.

During the question-and-answer session, we stood up and asked the following question:

“Senator Hagel said transparency is critical. What’s the deal exactly between U.S. News & World Report and Altria? What are the details of the sponsorship? Members of the social responsibility community refuse to invest in tobacco companies. Did you find it a little odd that a panel on corporate responsibility is being sponsored by a tobacco company?”

Nobody found it odd.

We pointed out in that article that a group of public health advocates at the University of California San Francisco have set up a web site — www.altriameanstobacco.com — that documents that in fact the company changed its name from Phillip Morris to Altria “to hide the taint of tobacco and attempt to restore a corporate image brought low by decades of deception and death.”

We also made the point that “not too long ago, it would have been considered improper for a major news organization to team up with a major tobacco company to sponsor a forum on corporate social responsibility — after all, tobacco companies are in the business of killing off their customers.”

This apparently did not please Mort Zuckerman and the other “leaders” at U.S. News and World Report.

And with today’s “leadership” event being broadcast on C-Span, you wouldn’t want any pesky questions about how is it that an oil giant with a shady history on the north slope of Alaska is funding a press event co-sponsored by U.S. News and World Report and Harvard University.

And so, U.S. News and World Report, and Harvard University and BP, decided that the best way was to bar those who would ask impolitic questions from the First Amendment Room.

How can we celebrate a list of leaders that includes Rice, Powell, Friedman and Ailes — a foursome who helped lead the country into a disastrous war of aggression — defined by former Supreme Court Justice and Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Jackson as “the supreme international crime” — a war of aggression that has cost close to 2,000 young American lives and untold thousands of Iraqi civilian lives?

And how can U.S. News and Harvard — BP we can understand — be complicit in barring reporters from an open press event from the First Amendment Room at the National Press Club — solely because those reporters were destined to ask questions that might embarrass the people sponsoring the event?

It is this kind of arrogance that has led the American people to turn on their leaders — according to a poll released today by U.S. News, 64 percent of Americans believe leaders today are corrupted by power and 62 percent believe they are primarily looking for monetary enrichment — including those that were celebrated today in the First Amendment Room.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter, . Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor, . Mokhiber and Weissman are co-authors of On the Rampage: Corporate Predators and the Destruction of Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press).

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