Not to get too Swampland-y in here, but the political press is abuzz this morning over the resignation of Samantha Power, an Obama
aide adviser (and TIME contributor) for having called Hillary Clinton a “monster” in an interview. (A smoke monster? A Godzilla / Cloverfield type creature? Where was the follow up?)
The Tuned In aspect–and I’ll finish this after the jump, for the convenience of those of you who could care less–is this: What does “off the record” mean, anyway?
Earlier, clearly rattled by the Ohio defeat, Ms Power told The Scotsman Mrs Clinton was stopping at nothing to try to seize the lead from her candidate.
“We f***** up in Ohio,” she admitted. “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,” Ms Power said, hastily trying to withdraw her remark.
“That is off the record”: So why did they quote her, non-journalistic readers might ask?
In regular reporting practice “off the record” does mean that the statement is not to be quoted or attributed–but only when the reporter and subject establish that ahead of time. If that weren’t the case, sources would constantly try to take quotes off the record after the fact–days later, even–after having second thoughts.
Now, in practice, reporters are not going to overlook every plea to go off the record–if you’re interviewing the family member of a crime victim, who’s never been interviewed before, you’re likely to cut them more slack. But for the press spokesman for a national presidential campaign (and, as I said, a contributor to a national newsmagazine), it’s fair to expect them to know the rules of off-the-record, by which Power’s take-back was too late. [Update: Not all journos agree with me, though--there's a lively debate on this going on a Jim Romenesko's media blog. Eric Deggans expresses my view better.]
That’s what fairness dictates, anyway. In practice, some journalists have developed a cozy habit of allowing political sources wide leeway with the rules of off-the-record. Even journalists who play tough guys on TV, like Tim Russert. In the Scooter Libby trial, Russert famously testified that he considers any phone call from a senior government official to be off the record unless specified otherwise–which basically turns the rules of off-the-record upside down. But it keeps your Washington sources happy, chatty and returning your calls.
Given that kind of routine leniency between Beltway journalists and their Beltway sources, you might understand why a campaign source would expect to be able to call take-backs after accidentally saying what she really believes to a reporter. The problem: Power was talking to a Scottish newspaper, and across the pond, political reporters tend to be less inclined to grant their sources mulligans.
Mind you, the fact that a grown person called another grown person a mean name (one that, shockingly, is actually printable on a family magazine website) is not, IMHO, exactly groundshaking political news. And I’ll leave it to the campaigns to determine whether this should be a fireable offense from here on out, in which case, I hope they have a lot of resumes on file.
But the way that it became news–and the way that Power was caught trying to backtrack from it–is a little thing that tells you a lot about the cozy rules journalists and politicos often operate by, and what happens when someone runs into somebody who doesn’t follow them.
[Update: Oh, this is too good. On MSNBC's Tucker, host Tucker Carlson just interviewed Gerri Peev, the author of the Scotsman article. "Well, she wanted it off the record," Carlson said. "Typically the arrangement is, if someone you're interviewing wants a quote off the record, you give it to them off the record. Why didn't you do that?" Peev looked genuinely surprised: "Are you really that acquiescent in the United States?"
Ooooh, Tucker did not care for that! "Since journalistic standards in Great Britain are so much dramatically lower than they are here, it's a little much being lectured on journalistic ethics by a reporter from The Scotsman. If you could just explain what you think the effect is on the relationship between the press and the powerful. People don't talk to you when you go out of your way to hurt them as you did in this piece. Don't you think that hurts the rest of us in our effort to get the truth from the principals in these campaigns?" Peev's answer: "If this is the first time that candid remarks have been published about what one campaign team thinks of the other candidate, then I would argue that your journalists are not doing a very good job of getting to the truth."
A curious argument for Tucker Carlson to make, since back in 1999, he made a splash by reporting an unguarded comment by George W. Bush--which Bush later denied--mocking a woman he had put to death as governor of Texas. Hasn't really seemed to hurt Carlson's access to Republican officials since then.]