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Parsing the meaning of 'off the record'

By Ben L. Kaufman · March 28th, 2008 · On Second Thought

To her credit, Harvard professor and Pulitzer-winning author Samantha Power doesn't deny calling Hillary Clinton a "monster" during an interview with journalist Gerri Peev from The Scotsman.

Unlike lesser beings, Power didn't take the traditional Beltway Escape Route and apologize for upsetting people. Instead, she apologized for what she said and resigned as an unpaid Obama foreign affairs adviser.

A long, thoughtful BBC World Service interview recorded the day before this storm erupted suggests how much Obama loses if Power truly absents herself from his counselors.

She might have said the "monster" quote was fabricated, misunderstood or taken out of context. She could have accused Peev of violating an "off the record" understanding, but there was none.

Here's what she said:

"We fucked up in Ohio. In Ohio, they are obsessed and Hillary is going to town on it, because she knows Ohio's the only place they can win. She is a monster, too -- that is off the record -- she is stooping to anything. You just look at her and think, 'Ergh.' But if you are poor and she is telling you some story about how Obama is going to take your job away, maybe it will be more effective. The amount of deceit she has put forward is really unattractive."

Generally, journalists agree that nothing is off the record unless the reporter agrees beforehand. Saying "off the record" later does not make it so.

I know of no reporter who would have put "monster" off the record after it was uttered. It's candor that reporters, editors and headline writers rarely hear.

Beyond ethics, agreements to go off the record can be enforceable oral contracts. If journalists break their promises, they can be sued and lose. The First Amendment may be no defense, and judges are increasingly deaf to reporters' assertions of confidentiality.

It's best to avoid off the record. Think about negotiating with these questions in mind:

� What does "off the record" mean? Use the information but don't link it to the speaker? Don't use the information unless I get it from someone else on the record? Don't use the information except to pursue the subject further? Don't use the information?

� Is this what Beltway hacks call "background" or "deep background" or, as one said to me, he was instructed to "never give a straight answer on the record."

� How do I deal with likelihood that letting someone go off the record will open me to manipulation?

� After material is printed, broadcast or posted online, how do I resolve misunderstandings about what was off the record?

� Am I willing to risk jail or fines for contempt if I refuse to break my promise to protect my source?

� Will my source come forward publicly if a court orders me to reveal his/her identity?

� Legally or ethically, when can I break my word?

� When, if ever, is a reporter "off duty" and anything said is assumed to be off the record?

A reporter can agree that something already said is off the record, but that's the journalist's choice.

Refusal is ethical even if it riles the speaker, ends the interview and damages the relationship.

Over the years, I have developed practices that seem to work. Anything said over our dinner table is off the record. If I want to pursue it, I call the next day and ask. I respect a refusal to go on the record but, in such cases, I always ask how I might use it. I treat conversations at hosts' tables the same way unless we agree beforehand that it's a working meal. That's not insulting; both sides value the clarity.

Lack of clarity created two modern journalistic legends:

Jesse Jackson thought an after-hours gathering -- which included reporters -- was off the record when he disparaged heavily Jewish New York City as "hymie town." When that became public, it raised questions about his discretion and whether he was betrayed by reporters hanging out with him.

Earl Butz lost his job as President Ford's agriculture secretary because of his racist, sexist, scatalogical good ol' boy joke on a campaign plane. He thought he was off the record when surrounded by reporters.

I have sources on whom I rely for their knowledge and integrity. If they asked, I probably would agree to an off the record conversation as the best way to reduce my ignorance and gain a sense of what the facts mean. This was especially vital when I covered federal courts as a nonlawyer.

When editors asked, I identified my sources and said why I agreed to off-the-record conversations. No editor ever violated that trust and inserted the names in my stories, although one made up an interview and attributed it by name to a federal prosecutor.

If editors insisted on identifying my unnamed source in a story, I would call the source for permission to use his/her name. If they refused, I deleted their information.

A classic local case involved a much-anticipated CEO promotion. I asked for a no-holds-barred with this understanding: If he were promoted, it would be on the record. Otherwise, the interview never happened.

The timing of the announcement meant The Cincinnati Post got it first, but it could fit in only a short story on deadline. We ran the whole, substantive and self-revealing interview the next day in The Enquirer.

If a source abuses my trust in an off-the-record conversation, I will not deal with them again that way. If I break my promise, I expect they will responded similarly.

If I learn they lied, that violates our agreement and frees me to name them. To minimize that risk, I and other reporters follow the basic rule: check it out.

Curmudgeon Notes
� Some old business. First, kudos to carriers who had my Enquirer and New York Times on the front step before 7 a.m. Saturday March 15 in mid-snowstorm. Second, WLW's Bill Cunningham spent Monday after the storm ridiculing local TV's inept, inaccurate, excessive and fear-mongering coverage. Willie is right, and he and his callers questioned the ability of local TV reporters, editors, news directors and anchors to discern and avoid hyperbole. Some of my acquaintances said local newscasts they watched ran into 6:30 Friday network news. At 11 p.m., it was not "brutal" out there. Light snow was whipping around. That's no white-out.

Pretending a high snow bank created by a parking lot plow is a "drift" is lying. It's ignorant when a reporter in Hamilton points to an ankle-high curlicue as a "drift." It would have been wise to end one veteran journalist's report before she lay down and made an "angel" in the snow. If the storm was that dangerous, friviolity was misguided. Yes, NOAA issued a blizzard warning. Yes, some police issued Level 3 admonitions to drive only on urgent business. Beyond that, anyone could walk to their Action Weather Window and assess the beauty and hazards of the snow. And yes, some people canceled events, but why stream cancellations hours after the event?

� I've covered blizzards. It's a blizzard when wind-driven snow piles against buildings so high and hard that you can climb to the roof and slide down. It's a blizzard when your car stalls because wind-driven snow clogs the engine's air intakes. And it's a blizzard when you must choose among staying in the stalled car in the middle of the highway in near-whiteout conditions, walking until you find a mailbox, driveway and hope of shelter or digging a snow cave near the car and waiting out the storm.

� Will nonstop promotional stories about IKEA resume for Svenskarnas Dag? Will IKEA introduce shoppers to lutfisk and lefse?

� Why did UC's News Record devote part of Page 1 to a color photo of three Toyotas parked in a Toyota PR stunt in front of the student union?

� WLW radio's newsreaders talk about unrest in TIE-bet.

The Cincinnati Beacon ends its experiment with a monthly print edition due to insufficient advertising support when initial funding ran out. It was worth doing, even if only to draw eyeballs to the

CONTACT BEN KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



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