Sunday, March 09, 2008

Off the record

Glenn Greenwald makes considerable hay out of a published remark by Samantha Power that forced her to resign an advisory position with the Barack Obama campaign.

I'm not so interested in Greenwald's thoughts about the obsequiousness of American reporters, particularly as compared to their British counterparts. And I have no interest at all in wading through his 400-plus comments about how worthless and corrupt all American reporters are. But a few basic principles seems worth repeating:

1. The Scotsman was perfectly correct to use the quote from Power. Off-the-record agreements have to be made in advance, and Power should know that.

2. Just because it is legitimate to use a quote doesn't necessarily mean it is a good idea. This sort of situation comes up fairly often, and I generally honor an ex post facto request to go off the record when:
A. I am dealing with someone unused to working with the press.
B. The source clearly made a misstatement that he or she wishes to correct or withdraw.
C. The quote isn't important enough to be of interest anyway.

3. Delayed requests to go off the record should be denied when:
A. Sources who should know better abuse the practice.
B. The quote reveals important information that readers should know.

The case that always comes to mind was a remark I once heard from a hospital administrator in Texas who was explaining why the hospital always seemed to be short of beds even when it had fewer patients than its rated capacity. One reason, he said, was that some white people didn't want to share rooms with black people. He asked me not to use that, but it was on the record and it seemed newsworthy to me, so I printed it. He never liked me after that, but I don't think he liked me much before that either, so no big deal.

I'm not going to second-guess The Scotsman, which naturally has a somewhat different perspective and approach than an American newspaper would have. But here's a case where a source said something that may represent her true beliefs but that was a very dumb thing to say in public. She apparently realized it was a mistake as soon as she said it and tried, not very gracefully, to take it back. Outside of a day or two of embarrassment for her and the Obama campaign, her remark added nothing of importance or substance to the debate about who should be president.

Printing it made no big difference. It just may make it even a little harder than it already is to get anyone associated with a political campaign to ever say anything that hasn't been cleared with top management. That, I would submit, is the real problem with American politics: not that reporters won't print the good stuff, but that campaigns are so afraid of getting burned that they won't say anything worth printing.


Ed Kemmick said...

I don't know how many people realize this, but Samantha Power herself is one of the best reporters around. Her book "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," was justly awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Though much of it was history, it involved a lot of straight reporting, and that reporting was of the first order. So she of all people should have known better than to try to retract a statement by retroactively declaring it "off the record."

Other than that, I don't see the big deal. She was calling Hillary a monster for her cold-blooded use of attack-dog tactics, which was perfectly accurate and not very inflammatory. But, as you say, everyone has become so afraid of saying anything at all that could be wrongly construed, or somehow used by "the other side." Bunch of damned wimps.

Anonymous said...

Most of what you say I agree with, except for this point: Powers is, or was, one of Obama's closest advisers. She had his ear on a lot of Middle East issues. Some believed she was quite anti-Israel. (I don't know enough about her beliefs to make a judgment, but there are strong feelings both ways) I think we need to know a lot more about his views on that issue.

Anyway, while this incident may seem kind of silly, it is somewhat disconcerting that Obama would rely so heavily for foreign policy advice on someone who could fly off the handle like that. And as I understand it, it wasn't the only time on her trip to Europe that she shocked folks with controversial statements.