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Off the Record, for the Record

By Ben L. Kaufman · October 31st, 2012 · On Second Thought
on second thought 10-31
The perils of “off the record” were never clearer than when President Obama sought the Des Moines Register endorsement last week.
 
It was a 30-minute Obama call to publisher Laura Hollingsworth and editor Rick Green, a former local editor at the Enquirer.

The White House said Hollingsworth and Green couldn’t share what they learned. Agree or no Obama call. Presidents can do that. They agreed reluctantly.

Why Obama did that is beyond me. Iowa matters. Green’s paper dominates state news media. He’s no pushover. Green would tell everyone about the stealth pitch for endorsement.

He has.

Green’s’s blog said it was what the White House described as a “personal call” to the Register’s top execs. “The specifics of the conversation could not be shared because it was off-the-record,” Green wrote. “Of course, we immediately lobbied his campaign staff in Des Moines for a formal, on-the-record call. We were told it was not their decision; it came from the White House. We requested that the White House be asked to reverse course so whatever the president shared with us could be reviewed by voters and our readers. No reason was given for the unusual condition of keeping it private. We relented and took the call. How could we not? It’s the leader of the free world on line one.”

I’ll forgive Green that “leader of the free world” malarkey. I enjoyed working with and for him; his final favor was to honor my request to skip the traditional local desk sendoff and cake when I retired in 2002.

Green continued in his blog, “The conference call lasted nearly 30 minutes and was an incredibly informative exchange of questions, answers and an insightful glimpse into the president’s vision for a second term. He made a genuine and passionate case for our endorsement and for reelection. Just two weeks before Election Day, the discussion, I believe, would have been valuable to all voters, but especially those in Iowa and around the country who have yet to decide between the incumbent Democrat and his Republican opponent.”

Someone must have whispered in someone’s ear in Washington, “You screwed up in Iowa. Green told everyone about your attempt to manipulate the Register without accountability. Release the goddamn transcript.”

Without comment or explanation, the White House released the telephone call transcript the day after Green’s blog appeared. The Register endorsed Romney — the first Republican since Richard Nixon in 1972 — in time for its Sunday’s paper. Wonderful omen.

Candidates and publishers, editors and editorial writers take endorsements seriously. I have no idea whether anyone else does. Endorsements might confirm readers’ candidate preferences, but I wonder if endorsements motivate anyone to vote.

Gut and experience tells me that substantive and explanatory campaign news is a lot more important and influential than endorsements.

But back to off the record. It’s a trap, as Rick and his boss knew when they accepted a call they couldn’t refuse. “Personal call” my eye. It was a crass sales pitch asking for their endorsement. It’s about as personal as a candidate’s robocall asking for money.

Far lesser lights than Obama demand off the record and too many reporters and editors go along to get along. Sometimes an entire interview is off the record. Euphemisms include “background” and “deep background.”
Other times, a subject will say “off the record” in mid-interview and continue talking. However, it’s not off the record unless the reporter first agrees and there is no obligation to agree.

Moreover, the terms have to be negotiated before the interview can go off the record. What’s off the record and when will the speaker go back on the record? Does off the record mean I can’t tell anyone? That I can use it so long as it’s not traceable to the speaker? That it’s background for further on-the-record reporting?

When editors let reporters grant confidentiality to sources, courts can construe that promise as a binding oral contract. If both parties agree to off the record and what it means but the reporter violates the agreement, that can break the contract.

My ethical/professional caveat is that off the record makes the reporter and news medium accomplices in the source’s efforts to manipulate the public without accountability. Rarely is it justified and you don’t know until you hear what’s off the record. 

My favorite response to “off the record” is to ask why and what they’d say if I agreed and we went off the record.



CURMUDGEON NOTES:


•    After weeks of dreary campaign coverage and soul-destroying political ads, here’s a day brightener. Jian Ghomeshi’s long-format interview radio show, Q, scored a rare interview with J. K. Rowling. She was in New York promoting her first adult-audience book, The Casual Vacancy.

    Among other things, Ghomeshi asked why she courts news media criticism by giving so few interviews. “Well, I just don’t think I have that much to say.” And why do the news media make so much of her reluctance? “That’s because the media is very interested in the media,” she said.



    I laughed so hard I had to sit down in our northern Ontario cabin. Q is a morning program and evening repeat on Canada’s CBC Radio. Q is heard here at 9 p.m. weekdays on WVXU.

•    Further proof that life as we know it revolves around Cincinnati: the Oct. 29 New Yorker’s essay on the fraud of voting fraud begins with Hamilton County. We’re the perfect example of GOP supporters trying to intimidate voters. A key point made by reporter Jane Mayer’s sources: photo IDs might deter someone impersonating a genuine voter but you don’t corrupt an election that way. You need massive — if subtle — manipulation of the vote count.

•    So, is anyone confident your vote will be counted accurately? We don’t get a receipt showing how our votes were tallied. Any retailer can give us a receipt showing what we’ve paid by charge or debit card. So where are the reporters asking Boards of Elections why it can’t give us a receipt and editorials demanding this accountability? Receipts won’t prevent corrupt officials, employees or hackers from going into voting-counting computers after we vote, but it might deter some.

•    Hamilton County Board of Elections assures the Enquirer that its voting machines are secure. No computer-based anything is secure. Computers are more or less vulnerable to external hacking and surreptitious insider reprogramming. Worrying about GOP ties to voting machine companies doesn’t make me a conspiracy crank. It matters because of Romney’s links to the current equipment provider. In 2004, the then-provider of our voting machines was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president (Bush) next year.” That was Walden W. O'Dell’s promise. He was chief executive of Canton-based Diebold Inc., which made voting machines Ohio used in 2004. W carried Ohio that year.

•    GOP efforts to restrict voting is second only to the Republican commitment to ending a woman’s access to abortion. It’s not new. In all of this year’s reporting about Republican voter suppression — photo IDs, phony “official” mailings misdirecting voters of color, etc. — didn’t find references to William Rehnquist before he was Chief Justice of the U.S.

    Google is rich with Rehnquist’s dark history as a GOP operative. This came from a files.nyu.edu post about John Dean’s book, The Rehnquist Choice. The folks at New York University said “Dean was a member of Nixon's cabinet, was Nixon's counsel in the Watergate affair and played a prominent role in selecting Rehnquist as a Supreme Court nominee. He writes that Rehnquist was part of roving ‘squads’ of Republican lawyers who went from precinct to precinct, confronting and harassing black and Latino voters.” Here’s what Dean wrote on pages 272-273 of The Rehnquist Choice:

    “Collectively, these witnesses described 'squads,' or teams, that moved quickly from precinct to precinct to disqualify voters, confronting black and Hispanic voters standing in line at the polls by asking them questions about their qualifications, or holding up a small card with a passage from the U.S. Constitution and demanding that the voter read it aloud; also photographing people standing in line to vote."

    "All told, the Democrats produced fourteen people who swore they had witnessed Rehnquist challenging voters. In rebuttal, the Republicans produced eight witnesses who claimed they had not seen or heard of Rehnquist challenging voters — but none of them could testify that they were actually with Rehnquist during any entire election day, nor did their testimony cover all the elections involved in the charges . . . The evidence is clear and convincing that Rehnquist was not truthful about his activities in challenging voters."

•    Most Americans tell pollsters they rely on TV for their news. Next Tuesday, these viewers will take their rich opinions and impoverished facts into the voting booth. This recalls Mr. Whig, the  fictional alter ego of a great Enquirer editorial page editor, Thom Gephardt, who frequently muttered, “I fear for the Republic.”

•    Much as I have followed campaign coverage, I have little or no idea of what Obama and Romney will do to create jobs, ease immigration problems, provide and pay medical professionals to care for millions to be covered by Obamacare, wean us from deadly coal, cope with problems associated with fracking for oil and natural gas, make the wind blow and sun shine, reduce or slow global warming, bring Palestinians and Israelis closer to a peaceful two-state resolution, deal with the Taliban when it returns to power, etc. Despite what I hear from any liberals/progressives, Obama hasn’t disappointed me; I wrote nothing on that blank slate in 2008. It sufficed that he wasn’t McCain. In his way, Romney increasingly recalls Nixon in 1972 with his “secret plan” to end the Vietnam war. He had no plan. That was the secret. Deja vu all over again.

•    Mark Curnutte’s Sunday Enquirer post-mortem on the lethal street culture of revenge among some young black Cincinnatians is as current as perps who became victims soon after he interviewed them and Amanda Davidson took their photos.

•    CNN.com “unpublishes” reporter Elizabeth Landau’s story linking women’s hormones to political choices. CNN says the story wasn’t edited adequately. The study by a Texas academic concludes that ovulation makes women feel sexier.  Ovulating single women are likelier to vote for Obama (liberal) and ovulating married women or women in other committed relationships are likelier to vote for Romney (conservative.) I wonder if CNN pulled the story because some subjects are beyond inquiry, like women’s abilities for math and science or racial/ethnic differences in various pursuits. Then there is the whole fantasy about “unpublishing” an online post. You can get to the original story — replaced by an editor’s note on CNN.com — at poynter.com or dailykos.com.

•    The Seattle Times seeks to restore readers’ trust after it published free ads for the Republican candidate for governor and for supporters of a state gay marriage referendum. The ads make the paper part of each group’s propaganda machine. There is no other way to say it. Good luck to reporters who have to cover those campaigns. Maybe someone should create the “Almost Darwin Awards” for news media bent on self-destruction. You don’t know Darwin Awards? Look it up. The awards are as funny as Seattle Times’ claims to virtue are cringe-worthy.

    After the paper’s ethical pratfall and a newsroom rebellion, the Seattle Times turned its fact-checkers loose on those free partisan ads and gave the ads a rating of “half true.” (T)wo ads that were checked contained two true claims, one mostly true, one half true and two that were false, the paper and Poynter.com said.

•    Newsroom rebellions rarely go public like that by Seattle Times journalists (above). Years ago, then-owners of the Minneapolis Tribune and Star supported relocation of the Viking/Twins stadium from the ‘burbs to downtown. Here’s what the New York Times said in its obit of the publisher, John Cowles Jr.:

    “Opponents, including staff members at The Minneapolis Tribune, thought it was a clear conflict of interest for the owner of a newspaper to take a public position on an important local issue it was covering . . . (S)taff members placed an ad in their own paper disassociating themselves from the company’s involvement.”

•    Fifty years ago, we almost had a nuclear war over missiles in Cuba and en route on Soviet freighters. Regardless of where U.S. ships turned back the freighters, it was the real thing, no Gulf of Tonkin or Weapons of Mass Destruction fraud. I was at UPI in London and the Brits were very, very frightened; in a nuclear war, both sides’ missiles could be overhead and Soviets would attack Britain’s RAF and Royal Navy nuclear strike forces. I went to the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square. The crowd was hostile. Least threatening were those carrying or wearing what is now known as the “peace symbol.” Then it was the much more potent and timely totem of Britain’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

•    Half a century later, that British CND symbol is a meaningless design for feathered earrings and leather-thong necklaces. But turn the symbol upside down so that the “wings” tilt up. You have the Brits’ Vulcan “V-bomber.” It was the heart of their Cold War airborne nuclear deterrent during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vulcan bases would have been targets in any nuclear exchange.

•    Only a coverup is juicier than the original scandal, especially in broadcasting. BBC is tearing itself apart over the sex scandal. Arrests have begun: Convicted pedophile and BBC TV entertainer Gary Glitter is the first. Hundreds claim a leading children’s program presenter and colleagues molested hundreds of girls at BBC studios, children's hospitals and other locations. The focus of the probe, Jimmy Savile, is dead. His victims — including women at BBC — offer explicit tales of his harassment and abuse. BBC execs are accusing each other of lying or misleading parliament; Scotland Yard is beginning to ask why police didn’t act sooner on repeated reports and complaints about Savile and other abusers at BBC.

•    AP says New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. last week reiterated his support for the Times’ new CEO, Mark Thompson. Thompson, who was BBC’s director general until last month, has been under scrutiny over the BBC’s decision to cancel its major investigative program about Savile sexually abusing youngsters. AP says Sulzberger told Times staff that he was satisfied that Thompson had no role in canceling the explosive program. As with all scandals and coverups, we will learn what BBC and Scotland Yard knew and when they knew it. Lovely.


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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