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Off the Record? Not Unless You Agree Ahead of Time

Glenn Greenwald (Salon) writes:

The most interesting part of the controversy over Obama advisor Samantha Power’s referring to Hillary Clinton as a “monster” — one might say the only interesting part — is that immediately after Power said it, she tried to proclaim that it was “off the record.” Here was Power’s exact quote:

“She is a monster, too –- that is off the record –- she is stooping to anything.”

But the reporter who was interviewing her, Britain’s Gerri Peev of The Scotsman, printed the comment anyway — as she should have, because Peev had never agreed that any parts of the interview would be “off the record,” and nobody has the right to demand unilaterally, and after the fact, that journalists keep their embarrassing remarks a secret.

Read the whole piece for a solid, if repetitive, analysis of U.S. journalists often-pathetic deference to power.

When I was a reporter and then a columnist, I had a rule that no public figure — that is, anyone who’d had experience with being interviewed — had the right to declare anything off the record after the fact. Now I might agree not to publish something if it wasn’t relevant, but if something was to be off the record it would be decided ahead of time.

I didn’t have the same policy with people who weren’t media-savvy. Sometimes I’d actually say to someone, “Do you realize that I what you’re telling me might go into the newspaper?” I’d let them reconsider their words.

In the past several days I’ve had a brief email correspondence with a journalism student (not from my own school) who is determined to conflate citizen journalism with the deliberate and unfair maligning of people for political reasons. He knows what he is going to say and only wants a quote or two from me to reinforce it. I declined to be part of his broad slam on a genre that is much more nuanced than he’s apparently trying to portray.

I will be publishing the emails in another post, with my commentary. My current intention is not to publish his name or institution, because I suspect he — despite his course of study — is not savvy about the media in any serious way.

Sadly, savvy in media for U.S. journalists tends to mean doing what powerful people want you to do. That’s the more serious problem, far more so than Powers’ unfortunate remark.

5 Comments on “Off the Record? Not Unless You Agree Ahead of Time”

  1. #1 Digidave
    on Mar 8th, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    Excellent post Dan.

    What you state above about off the record is exactly what I was taught. It’s an agreement that is decided on by both parties – and it is decided beforehand. I was also told that for less-media savvy folk you should explain to them the nuances of what they are saying and how public it can be. But this Obama adviser should have known better.

    More concerning is the student interview you declined. I’m very curious to see this email exchange. I had a phone call the other day that I could feel going a certain way and I felt I had to preface every statement I made with something along the lines of “this is a bigger issue than I or you realize but….” or something to put it in a larger context.

  2. #2 Seth Finkelstein
    on Mar 8th, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    Dan, I wasn’t impressed by the chest-beating here. In fact, it seemed to me to be a sickeningly self-righteous justification for crucifying a very minor figure over a slip-up, and trying to pass that off as speaking truth to power. I get the impression of a gloating “You didn’t say “Simon Says”, so ha-ha-ha, WE GOTCHA. No backsies! Bagged ya fair and square according to the rules, score one for the press ’cause you didn’t understand the game right”. It’s not exactly inspiring. In fact, the whole situation is really twisted overall.

    Now, the guy asking the “citizen journalism” question is probably not going to articulate the following point well. But there’s a real issue that the right-wing attack-machine sees in it a sort of loophole in the rules of the game. It reminds me a lot of a fantasy novel with a plot aspect that a group of assassins wants to kill a character who is in Sanctuary Ground, so the goal is to lure him into territory that he *thinks* is part of Sanctuary, but really isn’t – then they can kill him without violating any Sacred Oaths.

    But why discuss that, when you can slam a nobody, presumably with standard blog-evangelism rhetoric [e.g. You used word ‘X’ as identical to ‘Y’, but rather than addressing your point about ‘Y’, I’ll note word ‘X’ can also mean ‘A’ or ‘B’, so I’ll spend a whole paragraph berating you about how great ‘A’ and ‘B’ are … 🙁 ]

  3. #3 Should “Off The Record” be Respected by Journalists? : ..:.:.. Todd And = Marketing + Media ..:.:..
    on Mar 8th, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    […] was meant to discuss Power’s new book? Was it merely a media culture clash? Was it just bad timing because Power said “off the record” after the statement instead of before? Was it the […]

  4. #4 Jon Garfunkel
    on Mar 9th, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    So, reading Greenwald I see that *even if* you preface an email with “off the record” (I would use “not for publication”), he may not honor your request? Swell guy.

    As for your anonymous J-school student (it’s not me, if anyone’s wondering; I’m not in J-school). Talk about speaking truth to power– I don’t mean to be snide, but I hope you have bigger targets to take on than an anonymous journalism student’s unpublished emails?

    Sheesh. Michael Zimmer of the Yale Information Society Project has guest edited First Monday‘s March 2008 issue on Critical Perspectives on Web 2.0. There is much to sink your teeth into here. Seth would love this article by Søren Mørk Petersen: “Loser Generated Content: From Participation to Exploitation.”

    (If you *are* that journalism student, say hello! why not post here?)

  5. #5 paul canning
    on Mar 10th, 2008 at 12:42 am

    Well said, interesting to see Seth’s reaction.

    I love Samatha Power for her work especially on Rwanda but what I’ve hated reading and hearing is that somehow British journalism has ‘low ethical standards’ compared to the US. As you say, allowing powerful people to take back quotes is not journalism – that’s cow-towing to power. Samantha made a mistake and the journalist showed the real opinion of the Obama camp (one I might agree with). That’s journalism.

    It’s interesting to me that US journalism is only now asking hard questions of Obama. There’s history here, with the failure to similarly asked questions before the Iraq War most notably.

    It seems to me that the UK has an extremely diverse and tough journalistic heritage which the US appears to have lost. Even with Iraq, where papers here had much criticism about what they didn’t report, we still had different voices heard whereas in the US it was a monolithic block – presumably why so many Americans started reading British news.

    Frankly, there’s an element of jingoism and self-protection from US journalists in this episode where they see ‘foreigners’ covering the election. Well excuse me but your decisions do effect the rest of the world and we do have a legitimate interest.