There’s no such thing as off-the-record for journalists

Linda Greenhouse’s snit-fit over C-SPAN’s attempt to record her appearance in Washington D.C. at a journalism educators’ conference Friday is a stunning show of arrogance and cluelessness.

(Here’s the take on it by Columbia Journalism Review, and here is this morning’s limp defense of her move by Slate.)

In an interview with the AEJMC Reporter, Greenhouse denied the suggestion that she threatened to walk out unless C-SPAN’s cameras left:

“I have absolutely nothing against C-SPAN,” she said. “I never turn down an invitation from C-SPAN.”

But she said the panel would not “have the same kind of intimate conversation” if the discussion was televised.

Greenhouse followed up with a letter of explanation that’s quoted here.

OK, so Greenhouse is saying she didn’t want C-SPAN to broadcast her comments because she wanted to have an “intimate” conversation with 50 or so professors in “private.” So did all 50 journalism education professors in the audience agree not to tell anyone what she said? Hardly. She never asked that the discussion be off the record, according to the CJR account.

If she just assumed the event was off the record once the cameras left, then that’s just plain stupid, or arrogant, or both. And it is also assuming a level of control over the audience (and fellow panelists from Slate and the Washington Post) that — if it ever existed — certainly is nonexistent today.

No one can accuse Greenhouse of being afraid of TV. But it does sound like she wanted to say something different to this “intimate” crowd, something that she is afraid to take responsibility for on a broader stage. Journalism is no place for such cowardice.

Everything that a journalist does is on the record — whether it is the questions asked at a news conference or the negotiations with a source over obtaining whistleblower information. While the source may consider the conversation private today, what the reporter did or said, and the terms of the agreement or conversation can become painfully public. Just ask Judy Miller.

How a journalist asks a question can be as important to the context of the story as the answer. A reporter once handed me an audio recording of his interview with a mentally retarded inmate on Texas’ death row, to accompany his story online. When the reporter asked me to edit out his questions before posting it on our Website, I was mystified. “I don’t want people to think I sound stupid,” the reporter said. But he assumed we would leave the prisoner’s words verbatim. Really, now? Dude, your questions are on the record!

Even the way a journalist votes in an election can be on the record. Think not? If you choose to participate in party politics and vote in a primary, your choice of flavors becomes a matter of public record. And it can be held up to public scrutiny. Former Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham, a Republican, once neutralized half of the capitol press corps at a news conference when he revealed (in front of television cameras) that several reporters had voted Democratic in the gubernatorial primary, and therefore must be biased against him.

When someone speaks in front of a room full of 50 people, there is no pretending that it is “private,” or that your lips are moving but you aren’t making a sound.

Journalists, of all people, should expect that their words and actions will be held up to the same accountability standard as for public figures.

And if you’re afraid to stand behind your words, then pick another profession where it’s OK to be a coward.

Update: The AEJMC met the day after the Greenhouse incident and said its open meetings will be open in the future. Here’s the story from the association’s site:

The AEJMC board has made it official: Journalists are welcome to cover the association of journalism educators in the future.

That’s good. But I still say its some kind of kinky to call a gathering of 50 journalism educators “intimate,” and any reporter who thinks their remarks are off the record in a crowd that size is a fool.

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One thought on “There’s no such thing as off-the-record for journalists

  1. I remember when John Dean was on a plane sitting near then member of the Cabinet Earl Butts who told an off-color joke. Apparently Dean wrote about it (in Rolling Stone??) which helped fuel a fire that led to Butts’ ouster.

    Who invented this “off the record”? It has no legal context tha I know of in the constitution. Are shield “laws” constitutional guarentees?

    In any event, in our interconnected world, the notion of off the record is off any chartered or unchartered territory.

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