CHICAGO - If two former U.S. presidents shared the stage to talk about the impact of the biotech industry and members of the press were not allowed to attend and report on it, did it really happen?
According to conference-goers who attended the luncheon (some of whom began queuing up hours before the scheduled event), it did. And what Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had to say sounded interesting though hardly earth-shattering.
"They talked about Congress, and how bipartisan it's become," said Terry McCool, of Eli Lilly Canada Inc., when he stopped by the BioWorld exhibit hall booth shortly after the luncheon. They also covered their efforts to bring peace to Pakistan, and their work in Haiti and in global health issues like HIV, he said.
In the area of biotech, they covered biofuels and the environment. "Greenwood took them through all the big issues," another conference-goer said, referring to moderator and BIO President and CEO James C. Greenwood.
Those certainly are all issues both ex-presidents have discussed openly before.
So why the media ban at BIO?
Members of the press are allowed only to hear the first part of today's keynote featuring former vice president Al Gore and reportedly are also banned from Thursday's address by Greenwood, and the reason for excluding media this year has not been exactly clear.
In response to a letter of protest by BioWorld correspondent Nuala Moran, BIO's vice president of communication, Jeff Joseph, said the former presidents would be able to speak their minds more "honestly and openly" in the absence of the press.
Another letter, this one from senior vice president and BioWorld group publisher, Donald R. Johnston, elicited a somewhat different explanation. Joseph said in an email that BIO's "official statement" is that only full conference registrants will be allowed to attend. That excludes exhibit staff, presenters and media, and "we cannot make exceptions in a fair and equitable manner," he said.
During an interview with BioWorld Today last week, Greenwood simply said BIO makes a decision regarding every plenary and "we have to stick to that decision."
But it's a decision that stands in stark contrast to past precedent. Members of the press were allowed to attend Bush's keynote speech at the 2003 meeting in San Francisco. When Clinton took the podium here at McCormick Place just four years ago, reporters from mainstream media outlets were banned - wife Hillary Clinton's simultaneous campaigning in Chicago was given as one of the reasons - but industry-focused publications like BioWorld were allowed access. (See BioWorld Today, June 24, 2003, and April 12, 2006.)
Perhaps a cost issue then? There was speculation that BIO wanted to reserve seats to the keynote - and accompanying catered luncheon - for attendees who had paid full registration fees. (Media attend the BIO meeting free of charge.) But if that had been the case, the keynote certainly would have been broadcast to areas outside the closed-off ballroom - even the press room itself, perhaps. It was not.
Others wondered whether it was the speakers themselves, or their handlers, who opposed the media presence, even though both Clinton and Bush spent eight years under intense media scrutiny and have since joined the lecture circuit. In fact, Bush embarked on his first speaking tour only a month after leaving the White House in 2009.
On the other hand, a Friday story in the Chicago Tribune noted that a scheduled Clinton/Bush event at Radio City Music Hall in February reportedly was cancelled, with a rather vague "violation of contract" explanation. A story posted by UPI cited a clash with the publicity agent.
Could that have been the result of a disagreement about media attendance? Maybe so.
In any case, those who were able to attend the keynote mostly seemed to come away impressed. After all, it isn't every day two former presidents appear together.
"They were pretty honest about their views on the world," McCool said, "It was well worth attending."
BioWorld, like other media outlets, will have to take his word for it.