Wednesday, March 12, 2008

About journalism and reporting

When should a reporter allow a person to go off the record?

I've heard some incredible crap about how Gerri Peev is some kind of monster - and that's on the record, but I am paraphrasing other people's complaints - for quoting Samantha Power saying that Hillary is a monster, followed immediately by "that's off the record".

I'm not a journalist, and I don't know journalist's ethics, but I do know common sense.

And on the one hand, I think that reporters have to recognize that they're speaking to people who are generally in an agitated state (be it excited, angry, sad, or whatever - you don't report on things so boring that no one is agitated over them). People in those states will blurt out things that don't truly represent their feelings.

On the other hand, what did Power say? Did she say "Hillary Clinton is a monster - no, I'm sorry, that's not really fair, could you take that off the record?" No, the reported quote is "She is a monster, too – that is off the record – she is stooping to anything".

Unless Ms. Peev has removed context, then I think it was fair to report that. This sounds like a person blurting out something that she really feels is true, not a person accidentally blurting out something she doesn't really believe. Reporters are supposed to report the truth, as best as they can, and while this wasn't exactly a pleasant truth, I think Ms. Peev is justified in reporting it.

If you want to be upset at people over this flap, I'd be upset at the Clinton boosters who tried to turn this into a game of "gotcha". So, what, one of Obama's people is upset about Clinton and used an awful word to describe her? Big deal; it's a political campaign, and it wasn't an official campaign statement.

What does bother me is some stuff that Glenn Greenwald discusses. Tucker Carlson suggests that Gerri Peev was wrong to report something that Samantha Power asked her not to report, because it makes journalists' jobs harder. People are less willing to talk to reporters, he says, if reporters might go around telling the truth about their conversations!

Well, I'm sorry, but the answer is simple, and it's exactly what Gerri Peev suggested: make sure it's clear when a conversation is on the record or not. If you're talking to a reporter about anything newsworthy, and it's not established as off the record, it's on the record.

Yes, that means you won't have as many of the famous and powerful people being all buddy-buddy with you. It also means you won't have them manipulating you nearly as much. Maybe you won't have as much to report, but what you have is going to be much, much closer to the truth.

And isn't getting closer to the truth what journalism is supposed to be about?

As you know, Bob, I used to be a journalist, and my position was that *nothing* was off the record unless being quoted by name would put the speaker at risk. And I don't mean "risk of having to eat crow."

That was pretty standard back then. If today's journalists find that letting people go OTR whenever they ask to makes the job "easier," then maybe they need to learn how to do some hard work. Because what it really does is permit rascals and malcreants to say anything they want - including outright lies - secure in the knowledge that they'll get away with it.
Nod. Or if they're too easy in granting anonymity, the same kind of abuse occurs.

I'm beginning to think part of the trouble might be a break down in some kind of sense of duty to the profession itself. It might be useful to one's own career to be chummy with someone and let them feed you whatever information they'd like to (when everyone else is being mean and insisting on on-the-record conversations), but it's bad for journalism as a whole.
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