Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Setting the Record Straight on "Off the Record"

It's been more than a few years since I was a wire-service reporter and, before that, a newspaper reporter, but I still remember enough to know that Katharine Seelye got it frighteningly wrong in the New York Times this week.

And it's frightening because, especially after years of one journalistic embarrassment after another, you'd think the Times would have mastered the basics.

Seelye led her story by declaring: "The journalistic phrase "off the record" seemed to lose all meaning last week at an event featuring Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court."

Why did the phrase lose "all meaning?" Because two newspapers -- the New York Daily News and the New York Post -- had the balls and brains to report on the event. The News did so in cutesy fashion, but in greater detail than did the Post.

They were right to do so, and Seelye is wrong to suggest otherwise. Why? Because "off the record" is not a magic phrase -- it's not something you can demand of journalists. It's a phrase sources and journalists use, by mutual consent, to determine how particular quotations or facts will be sourced and attributed.

In other words, if I ask President Bush, "how's it going?" and he says, "off the record, I could use a vacation," there's no rule that says I have to honor his declaration that he was going off the record. Why? Because it's not his record. The same principle applies if someone says, "don't photograph me." Well, if they're in public, you're allowed to photograph them. It's, like, the law and stuff. That whole "freedom" deal.

The one thing that would have put the News and Post in the wrong would have been if attendance at the event was contingent upon acceptance of ground rules such as declaration of all remarks as off the record. According to Seelye, and Lloyd Grove of the News, that wasn't the case. In fact, Grove makes a good point to Seelye, that the event was declared off the record ex post facto. A journalist with integrity should probably interrupt and object when a source starts off with a unilateral declaration of off-the-recordness, but there's definitely no power to an after-the-fact unilateral declaration.

Even in these post-adversarial-journalism days, you'd think they'd know that. At the paper of record.

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