Dan Gillmor

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.