“Clinton is a monster… and that’s off the record”

By now, most politicos know about Obama aide Samantha Power’s little gaffe in which she called Hillary Clinton “a monster” who is “stooping to anything.” (Power, a Harvard professor who’s written for The New Yorker, delivered NU’s Leopold Lecture last year.)

An interesting debate about journalism ethics has erupted from this incident, because Power requested that her remarks be kept “off the record.” The problem: She requested it after making her provocative statements. This raises several issues for journalists.

— How, and when, can a source go off the record? Most ethics guides state that everything is on the record until a source and journalist agree to go off the record. The journalist can refuse, in which case the source has no choice but to go along with it. For this reason, a decision to go off the record must be agreed upon before statements are made off the record. If a source decides after saying something that he or she wants it off the record, the journalist has no obligation to heed the request. However, journalists will often heed the request anyway, depending on the importance of the information and whether they want the source to ever talk to them again.

— What does “off the record” even mean? It can actually denote several different things. Scenario 1: It means the information can be published but not attributed to the specific source. (This is the sort of “off the record” you saw in the New York Times’ article on McCain‘s ethics, or his sex life, or both, or something like that.) Scenario 2: It means the information cannot be published without corroboration from another source, who might or might not also want to speak “off the record.” To be more specific, many journalists avoid using the phrase “off the record” and instead use more specific terms: “not for attribution” (scenario 1) or “on background” (scenario 2). Obviously, there are all sorts of nuances and ethical implications that I have only glossed over… but I think it’s pretty interesting stuff.

Question for discussion: Should the journalist have printed Samantha Power’s words? And did Power deserve to be fired?

More food for thought: Bob Herbert’s and Gail Collins’ columns today.

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9 Responses to “Clinton is a monster… and that’s off the record”

  1. laurabethnielsen says:

    Interesting issues, David. In social science, Institutional Review Boards give us the working rules about informaiton we get in interviews (governed by federal regulations). In my world, a person can call me after the interview and tell me they changed their mind and I have to get rid of the recording, note, consent forms etc because participants can withdraw from the study at any time. You journalists get all the protection (if someone confesses a crime) and you are not nearly as constrained as we are. That whole constituiton thing really helps you.

    I think it seems silly that she had to quit. It was a slip (and not a really horrible one – if you know my vocabulary!) which we all make from time to time which she immediately recognized, backed off from, and apologized for. That is called being human. A nicer reporter might have reconized that and given her a break. Seriously, how is it news? And, I would not be saying that if Power had called her a bitch — that is a gendered term which would raise my gender hackles (like the other stuff raced my race hackles).

    But, it shows that Obama is serious about this business of not going negative which makes me want him to win.

  2. dspett says:

    As much as I hate to say it, too many reporters get excited about things like this — breaking a story that makes waves (and, often, harms someone’s reputation), even if it isn’t newsworthy. You get a lot of attention and recognition for it. That said, I tend to think that while this issue has gotten bigger than I’m comfortable with, it isn’t the fault of the journalist who broke the original story, who was within her rights to print the quote. That said, I think there’s another argument that none of this really matters, so the reporter should have given Power a pass.

    As an aside, the more I think about it, the more I think the NYT’s McCain story likely had BOTH kinds of off the record sourcing. We don’t know everything about the negotiations that took place between the Times reporters and the former advisers to McCain, but it’s likely that some requested to be “on background” as well.

  3. nobamakoolaid says:

    I think you answered your own question, LB. It is news because we are discussing it here right now; it did not remain a blip on the radar. How could the reporter not report it? Should Woodward & Bernstein should have recognized that the Republicans were just trying to do what was right by the country and win the election?
    I tend to agree with you that it desn’t seem serious enough to be fired, but you need to be aware of everything you say at that level, espcially to a reporter. I don’t think she meant monster in the Hannibal Lector sort of way. I think she meant it more in that Hillary can really piss her off sometimes. And yes, I can see you saying something like that. And no, you sholdn’t be fired for it.
    I’m certainly no journalistic ethics expert, but it seems to me that you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. My layman’s understanding is that requesting “off the record” status occurs before the statement. Its not a protection against screw-ups.

  4. nobamakoolaid says:

    David, what is your take on “off the record” comments? What does Medill 101 say about it?

  5. laurabethnielsen says:

    You are right, KA (that’s short for kool aid) and david — i think she was within her “rights” to print it since it was said in an “on the record” meeting. I just meant she could have been understanding. And, jsut because someone is talking about it does not make it news — when Paris Hilton forgets her undies, it gets reported and people talk about it, but don’t tell me that is news.

    Now, this is a mean statement by a high up in a political campaign that claims not to be going negative — it’s news, you are right, but not just because people are talking about it — that reifies “news” too much for my comfort level.

    I always thought (from television) that you had to agree on “off the record” before you said it. But, tv does not get law very right, so why should I think it gets journalism very right?

  6. briand0n0van says:

    In my opinion, the assumptions that beltway journalists have about what should be and shouldn’t be “off-the-record” are what’s truly newsworthy about this news story. Witness, for instance, this exchange with Tucker Carlson, who basically says “Here in the US, if powerful figures want their comments shielded from public scrutiny, we’re more than happy to do that at any point during the exchange.”
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/23526624#23526624
    This is what Peev said in response: “Are you really that acquiescent in the United States? In the United Kingdom, journalists believe that on or off the record is a principle that’s decided ahead of the interview. If a figure in public life, someone who’s ostensibly going to be an advisor to the man who could be the most powerful politician in the world, if she makes a comment and decides it’s a bit too controversial and wants to withdraw it immediately after, unfortunately if the interview is on the record, it has to go ahead.”

    I wish he’d get rid of John Brennan, too.
    http://thinkprogress.org/2008/03/07/obama-brennan/

  7. robertlnelson says:

    Good stuff indeed, David. Powers should have known better, I suppose. But, query: how many times have similar sorts of comments been made that we do not hear about? Do journalists do research on these patterns? That is, systematically interviewing journalists about their standards and experience? Empirical journalism studies anyone?

    When David Brooks commented on the episode he regretted the loss of a very smart policy adviser over what seemed like a small mistake. I do not agree with a lot of what Brooks opines, but often he is interesting.

  8. briand0n0van says:

    I don’t agree with Brooks very often either, but he’s right about this situation. It’s a big loss for such an inconsequential mistake. I think journalistic practices and assumptions are the real story here. In those empirical journalism studies, I’m curious about cross-national data about what journalists think “off the record” (and its variants) means. At one point in the Tucker Carlson interview (linked above) he says “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.” Besides Carlson’s obvious pot/kettle/black issues, I wonder if he’s pointing to a change (decline?) in US journalistic standards or if long standing differences in how the US and UK press corps interpret confidentiality.

  9. dspett says:

    @nobamakoolaid: Medill 101 doesn’t really get into anonymous sources, but most students here are taught not to use them, period. That said, there are situations — particularly when covering government — when they’re necessary. There is a lot of gray area, but generally my standard is: 1) it must be in the public interest to print the information the source is providing, 2) the source has to have a legitimate reason to be granted protection (e.g., unauthorized to speak to the press, leaking confidential information, etc.), 3) there can be no clear alternative means for obtaining the information on the record, and 4) there should be no significant reason to doubt the veracity of the information. When using off-the-record sourcing it’s best to be as specific as possible in 1) describing the anonymous source(s) and 2) describing why he/she/they would not speak on the record. These are crucial to proving the credibility of the information to readers.

    @robertlnelson: I like your suggestions for research. To my knowledge there is little original research being done at Medill right now. Some organizations that do empirical research of the journalism industry include the Project for Excellence in Journalism (journalism.org), the Pew Research Center (people-press.org), and the Annenberg Public Policy Center at Penn (annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org). Most j-schools don’t have much to show for themselves in the way of empirical research.

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