Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Sad Death of Off-the-Record

One of the very useful bits of education I had as a grad student were the frequent visits from politicians, other political actors, and journalists to small lunch seminars hosted by Nelson W. Polsby's Institution of Governmental Studies. Some of them didn't depart from their normal talking points, but most of them spoke reasonably openly. Many of them also spent the day hanging out in Nelson's office, or stuck around for tea at the IGS later in the day. Some would also make guest appearances in undergrad classes, or otherwise share their time.

Again, some of them were basically a waste of time. And of course even when they were "candid" you wouldn't want to take everything they said at face value. But we got a lot of good, partially revealing stories, a good way to get a sense of them individually, and cumulatively a good education in what politicians, national journalists, and political operatives were like.

If you've seen today's news, you know where this is going. Frank Luntz -- and regular readers know how much I dislike him, but I would have been happy to have him at an IGS noon seminar -- was giving a talk to some students, asked that part of it be off the record, only to have a recording of it show up at Mother Jones today.

Did anyone do anything wrong? I don't know. "Off the record" is, normally, an agreement between someone and reporters she's speaking with. Are bystanders covered? I'd say anyone who was in the room and didn't say anything was being dishonest to Luntz. How about Mother Jones? Given the very slight news value of the recording, I don't know that it was worth running, but Mother Jones isn't bound by someone else's agreement.

The person who taped it, however, wasn't primarily betraying Luntz. He was betraying his fellow students -- and all fellow students. His actions, and the actions of anyone who does this sort of thing, make it impossible for public figures to speak candidly, or anything resembling candidly.

Now, it's always been up to the judgement of the speaker in these sorts of situations to read the room and adjust. A large room full of undergrads is different than a couple dozen scholars and grad students. Evidently Luntz misread his audience here. But we want public figures to risk that sort of thing, and it's really too bad when they get burned for it.

Of course, the stakes matter. It's one thing to expose what a presidential candidate says to supporters behind closed doors; it's quite another to expose something mildly embarrassing a political hack says.

Anyway, given the current technology, this sort of thing is probably inevitable. But it's too bad. A real step in the wrong direction.


  1. No, Mother Jones is not bound by anyone else's agreement. But guess what? The bystander wasn't bound by any agreement either.

    If you say something that someone else can hear, you should expect that it will become public. That's as true for Luntz as it was for Romney. And it's been true since well before the Twitter era.

    More importantly, I just can't see why this is a "step in the wrong direction", unless you're just nostalgic about the good ol' days when people could spout off nonsense without being called on it. More transparency is a *good* thing. Whether it's a major party presidential candidate or a has-been political consultant, it is most definitely a *good* thing that it has become harder for these people to tell one thing to one group and another thing to another group.

    (And no, getting "a lot of good, partially revealing stories" and "a sense of [politicians] individually" is not a good reason to give pols carte blanche to speak off the record.)

    To the extent that this prevents people from speaking candidly - who cares if that candor can never be shared with the public anyway?

    I guess the only people who are sad about the "death of off-the-record" are journalists--who crave access at all costs--and political scientists and other sycophants who want to feel like they have some special insight into what makes a pol tick.

    1. Sunlight is not always the best disinfectant.

      Horse-trading is really necessary to pass a lot of legislation. Bargaining in front of an audience is very difficult, and much less likely to produce a good outcome, partially because compromise is looked at more negatively by those you move away from than it is rewarded by those you move towards.

      Plus, there are always going to be less positive activities (bribery and so forth) that are always going to stay away from the light. So, I'd rather that there was a way to glimpse behind the scenes, than have everything become theater. We're already most of the way to pure kabuki now, and it doesn't seem to be getting us good results.

  2. I think it's dishonest of him to say something like that 'off the record'.

    If it's only a matter how how you're saying something? Sure. But that you're unwilling to come out and say things in public? That's a bigger problem.

    In this case, we're talking about Republicans unwilling to stand up to their own bullies. Honestly, I think there's probably more people out there that agree with Luntz on this issue than Limbaugh.

  3. Yeah if anything I'd say this is an example of the mainstreaming of Briebartism. That is trying to get secret recordings or other dirt of a public figure associated with a "side" in the political divide and use that to tar and feather them. I guess this sort of thing has always been going on, but I notice it more and more these days. For example there was that brouhaha about that one marginal writer for HBO's "Girls" and her twitter feed which was covered heavily by Alyssa Rosenberg (who I really like) which was rather bizarre considering their was a major attempt to smear the Center for American Progress, where she works, as anti-Semitic by some conservative activists because of a tweet one of CAP's former interns had tweeted. It's enough to make your head spin.

    1. Well, for true Breitbartism they would have had to edit the video to make it look like he was saying something else.

      (Okay, I acknowledge the exception of the Anthony Weiner photos, where Breitbart had the integrity not to alter images that came already fully usable for purposes of blackmail.)

  4. On the substance, Luntz is as much a part of the problem as he says Limbaugh is. What does the GOP need to expand its base beyond talk radio listeners? More silly word games!

  5. I disagree on Mother Jones's culpability. This is a pattern with them, and it feeds into the problem. We can't get frank talk from anyone in politics if its known that Mother Jones will run the cellphone recording, every time, regardless of journalistic value.

    You go into a room, say "off the record", then say you were the gunman on the grassy knoll....yeah, that should come out. But something like "Luntz doesn't like talk radio" means that reporters won't find out in the future what Luntz knows about X or Y. Maybe the Bush Administration had asked Luntz before the Iraq invasion how finding out there were no WMDs would poll. Maybe the Bush Admin even polled 9/11 when Condi read the report!

    Not that I believe any of this, and Luntz is unlikely to shed light on anything that isn't purely political, with no direct governance implications. But, technology changes, and we can adapt to that. Before the interwebs, Mother Jones wouldn't have had the capability to distribute this video. No video/audio-> less story. Mother Jones might not have even given this thing column inches in the print magazine. So, the technology has changed for both recording AND distribution. Mother Jones has clearly adapted their behavior due to the latter; why can we not expect them to do so with the former?

  6. When I was a journalist, I always thought of "off the record" as part of the tradecraft of journalism, where it works because journalists have an ongoing need for access to sources and don't want to burn ten or a hundred future stories for the sake of this one. It never occurred to me that someone could or would ask students or other laypeople to keep something off the record. That would have seemed, to me, like expecting non-doctors to follow some provision of the Hippocratic Oath.

    Based on that understanding, I would hesitate to say that we're seeing the "death" of the practice. It will die when journalists stop honoring it; whether laypeople make anything of such a request or not isn't really relevant.

  7. The problem is that "off the record" is not something a speaker can just say and then it's all covered and revealing it is not okay.

    Off the record is granted BY the reporter to the speaker. The general assumption should be that it's all "on the record" unless you have a specific agreement with specific people. It astounds me how often speakers get up to a podium and say "this is off the record" and then proceed, without any input or agreement from the other people in the room. This also seems to occur regardless of content. People say it even when their speech contains nothing controversial or even noteworthy.

    1. This is exactly right, and is something else I should have said in my comment above. "Off the record" is an agreement between the source and the reporter, and the reporter has to consent to it. It's never given automatically -- or if it appears to be, that's because of some standing agreement between the reporter and the source, or more likely between the reporter's news organization and sources in general, some agreement that's already been codified as newsroom policy.

      So, anyone who says "this is off the record" to people who haven't made such an agreement, and who as non-journalists don't even have an incentive to, is just asking for trouble. It sounds like that's what Lunz did here, and the fact that it didn't work really isn't any reason to worrry that "off the record" in general is a practice in decline.


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