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One of Barack Obama’s top advisers called Hillary Clinton “a monster” in an interview with The Scotsman, then immediately said that comment was off the record. The newspaper ran it anyway.
The comment came as Samanata Power, Obama’s foreign policy aide, told the newspaper that Clinton used “deceit” as she was “going to town” on her rival in Ohio.
“She is a monster, too – that is off the record – she is stooping to anything,” said Power.
To its credit, the newspaper not only ran the “off the record” request, it appended an explanation of its decision:
WHEN is off the record actually off the record? When the rules are established in advance.
Journalists are always looking for knowledge and want the information they receive to be available for publication.
But occasionally an interviewer will accept an exchange is “off the record” and that the conversation is not attributable. Remarks can be used as background to inform a journalist’s article.
If a conversation is to be off the record, that agreement is usually thrashed out before the interview begins. Sometimes, public figures say something and then attempt to retract it by insisting it was “off the record” after the event.
But by then it is too late, particularly if it is in the public interest that the story be published.
In this instance, Samantha Power was promoting her book and it was established in advance that the interview was on the record.
This kind of thing comes up all the time with working reporters. Someone makes a statement, sometimes a slip of the tongue, then immediately says that it was “off the record.” What do you do?
As the Scotsman suggests, whether or not an interview is off the record or not depends on what the journalist and the source agree to ahead of time. Absent any agreement, the entire interview is on the record.
You can make all kinds of agreements.
On the record: The “default” absent any agreement beforehand. Anything said can be used. Because no agreement was made beforehand, the Scotsman’s interview was on the record.
Limited Attribution: What’s said can be used, but the source cannot be named. Instead, the journalist may be permitted to use alternative forms of attribution (e.g., “a key Obama adviser” or “a source close to Obama” or “a source within the Obama campaign”). The precise details of a “limited attribution” agreement need to be worked out between the journalist and the source. An agreement might include the understanding that no direct quotes from the interview will be used (i.e., it’s “on background”). Obviously, naming the source is preferable, so there must be a compelling reason to limit the attribution.
Off the record: The information cannot be used in print. It’s strictly so the source can vent and/or so the journalist can have a better understanding of what’s “really” happening. The agreement may or may not allow the journalist to pursue the information via other means. Because the information cannot be used directly in print, journalists rarely agree to true “off the record” interviews.
Obviously there needs to be some leeway on the part of the journalists at times. I tend to be forgiving when speaking with people who are not public officials or public figures, unless using the quote would be vital to the public interest. I may withhold comment from people more accustomed to dealing with the media, but only if it’s not in the public interest. Even then, it’s a favor to the source, and I explain to them that nothing is off the record absent an agreement beforehand.
Power calling Clinton a “monster” is ethically fair game. Power is a public figure and a quasi-public official doing an on the record interview and commenting about a rival during a political campaign. The comment may not be crucial, but it is in the public interest.
On the other hand, I would argue that Connie Chung made a mistake when she broadcast a “between you and me” comment in which Newt Gingrich’s mother called Clinton a “bitch.” She was dealing with a woman unaccustomed to press interviews who was neither a public figure nor a public official.
(As an aside, my wife came up with a terrific response for Obama, given Clinton’s recent comments about whether or not he was a Muslim. “Hillary’s not a monster… as far as I know.”)