About Michael Oreskes

Senior Managing Editor, Associated Press

What’s the deal with Davos?

DAVOS, Switzerland — It’s hard to think of any other event quite like the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting here in the Swiss Alps. The U.N. General Assembly draws more world leaders. The Oscars attract more celebrities. But nothing brings together quite this combination of corporate executives, academics, philanthropists and media.

Participants walk in the main entrance hall of the Congress Center the day before the opening of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. The world's financial and political elite will head this week to the Swiss Alps for 2015's gathering of the World Economic Forum at the Swiss ski resort of Davos. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Participants walk in the main entrance hall of the Congress Center the day before the opening of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

It began in 1971 as a two-week meeting designed to improve European management. Some 450 executives attended. It has grown to something both grander and broader, with 2,500 attendees and a sweeping motto: “Committed to improving the state of the world.” No small task.

To a considerable extent they all come because they all come. Some critics dismiss the meetings as a talk shop or a gathering of elites who fly pretty high above the world most people live in, the one they are committed to improving.

Yet, for all that, interesting things are often said here and occasionally news is broken here. One year, AP Chief Switzerland Correspondent John Heilprin scooped the world on a new security policy in which the United States said that protecting corporate supply chains was now as important as the longtime job of guarding shipping lanes. How did he get the scoop? The then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was sent to Davos with half a dozen copies of the new directive signed personally by President Barack Obama. They were intended for other world leaders. But it’s hard to actually catch up with a world leader here, even though there are usually about 40 at least passing through. So John seized the moment and cajoled one of those documents out of an aide.

Some news organizations send small armies to cover Davos. One, for example, takes over the town’s library for its operations. AP takes a different approach. A small but hearty band of journalists covers all formats. It’s a great place to snag newsmakers for video or text. Pan Pylas, an AP business reporter here from London, recalls standing feet from actor Matt Damon one moment and then being quick marched by his editors (well, me actually) to a private briefing with the president of Iran.

“It’s unusual to get so many newsmakers and thought leaders all together in a very small place, when they are unusually accessible and a little bit more relaxed than usual,” Heilprin said. “For a reporter, the first challenge is to recognize them all. The second is to quickly think of a good question when one passes by.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron and  rock star Bono speak during the panel discussion  "The Post-2015 Goals: Inspiring a New Generation to Act", the fifth annual Associated Press debate, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014.  (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

British Prime Minister David Cameron and rock star Bono speak during the panel discussion “The Post-2015 Goals: Inspiring a New Generation to Act,” the fifth annual Associated Press debate, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

The highlight of our Davos week is the annual AP Davos debate, the brainchild of Director of Global Video News Sandy MacIntyre and Senior Field Producer Masha McPherson. Working with the Davos organizers, we turn one of the panel discussions into a broadcast and send it to our 700 broadcast clients and hundreds of digital news outlets.

We’ve had some memorable moments. Like the time Prime Minister David Cameron asked Bono to help craft a message for the fight on global poverty. Or when the Italian finance minister got angry because we asked about a bank scandal in Siena instead of the high-minded global financial questions he was looking for. Our Italian customers were very happy.

But that’s Davos. If you remember why you’re here, as a journalist, you can always find a story.

AP’s everyday work of seeking access to government information, with names attached

The rules by which journalists engage with government officials can sound arcane. “Background briefing.” “Off the record.” “Not for direct attribution.” But arguments over applying these rules are part of a struggle that really matters. Most democratic countries explicitly promise the right to speak and publish freely. But often only implied is the right to gather the information you want to speak about or publish, or to have someone gather it on the public’s behalf.

Which is why, at the AP, we see it as our everyday job to argue for access to the workings of government and the information government holds. Government officials increasingly offer to provide official information only on the condition that they are not identified as the source. These so-called background or off-the-record briefings are popular in government because officials can present information without taking responsibility for it. Without attribution it is hard for citizens to know whom in government to hold accountable. We believe anonymity should be reserved for sources who want to share important information with the public but could lose their job, or even their life, if they were identified. That clearly isn’t a risk for most government officials when they insist briefings be “on background.”

So AP journalists are instructed to ask that briefings be on the record. Sometimes they succeed. When government officials refuse, our journalists are instructed to use their best judgment about whether the information is important enough, and credible enough, to distribute despite the restrictions.

The struggle for access is not only about words. The White House often bars photojournalists from events with the president. The only images of those events are thus by government-employed photographers. You get to see only what the White House wants you to see. In those cases the AP generally declines to distribute the government handout photos, unless the restrictions were unavoidable.

The importance we place on being allowed to gather the news without interference was given a great deal of attention after it was revealed last month that the Justice Department had thrown an investigative drift net over the phone records of some of our reporters and editors to identify their sources. We protested, vehemently. As AP CEO Gary Pruitt said, this was an unprecedented intrusion and chilled our ability to gather news. The case was unusual, but our position flowed from the work we do each day to assure access to the workings of governments all around the world.