Sunday, March 09, 2008

Off the Record

Those of you who have been following the resignation of the Obama advisor after a British journalist failed to follow her instruction that her "monster" comment was off the record might have missed the journalist's interview with Hunter Tucker Carlson in which he praised the supine attitude of beltway journalists toward commands from their betters.

A friend sent this message:

Scroll all the way -- there is a lot of cool stuff here.

We were taught that nothing is off the record unless agreed upon ahead of time.

Were we wrong?

To which I replied:

Carlson: full of shit. American beltway reporters: all too often conduits for misinformation and objects of manipulation. Now, the interesting ethical dilemma is how often allow sources to speak anonymous, which concession to high ethics is often the only way to get important information before the public.

But letting folk who have been interviewed time and again play the "oh by the way don't quote me" game: bullshit. Now, Jessica Mitford the muckraker wrote about an interview in which a source said he did not want to be quoted, and she said something to the effect, "Well, restate it if you are unhappy with how it sounded." He did, and she said, "No. I will use both." My *only* criticism of the Scotsman's reporters is that the highest ethical act would have been to say immediately, "No, I will be using that. Perhaps, you'd like to elaborate." Letting people think you won't use something could be seen as dishonest, though perhaps the Scotsman's reporter assumed the Yank should have known the quote was fair game and that she understood that silence in response to her request did not mean it would be acceded to.

One last point: When you are quoting inexperienced folk who have never been interviewed, I think you proceed with compassion. You really might "hurt" them with no good reason. At minimum, if *they* announced in mid-interview that something is off the record, you stop and say it isn't and then go over the rules again. Oh. Off the record is supposed to mean you are supposed to behave as if you have never heard what is OTR, that you can't repeat it later on to get confirmation. OTR is not the same as "not for attribution."

Editor's Note:

Buckminister replies: Then OTR in the press is the same as in real life. Someone tells you something, and no one else (and I mean no one else) ever knows about it. Thought as much. Thanks for the clarification. I was surprised by the smarmy one's attack on The Scotsman journo, it was ruthless & efficient and he "won". She was rattled. And, like me, rather surprised! I'd *never* heard of anyone arguing that you could invoke OTR retroactively! A child can see that this means that nothing is ever really *on* the record...


Anonymous said...

Nothing should be off the record. If a comment helps a reporter to better understand a subject, why not share it with the ultimate customer, the reader? They pay the freight ultimately. What good is between-you-and-me info? Unless, of course, it enables the newsperson to feel privilaged and better about himself and the thrilling access he has.

Linda Summers said...

Excellent commentary on OTR journalism. Thanks for the clarification (and the advice if anyone ever dares question me ;-)

....J.Michael Robertson said...

I get the impression many journalists are a little shaky on what the term means. Sometimes, I think they choose to be a little shaky. That bad man Tucker Carlson is not, I think, a journalist. He's a pompous insider/pundit. I think I'll check him out to see if he's ever actually done any real journalism.

(time passes)

Well, I read in a less than authoritative source that he did work for a time -- doesn't say how long -- at an Arkansas newspaper, though his first job was editing at the Hoover Institute with all that implies. But if he worked for at least a week in an actual newsroom that means he really should know better, though one becomes really curious about his beat and the kind of stories he wrote.