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From AJR,   April/May 2009  issue

Off the Record   

off-the-recēord adj. 1. Not for publication, public disclosure, or reporting in any form--unless itís really, really good. Online Exclusive posted 5/4/2009 2:45p.m.


By Jamie McIntyre
     

Recently, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz pulled back the veil just slightly on a secret Washington institution, the "off -the-record" dinner.

Kurtz revealed that on April 21 Rahm Emanuel, White House chief of staff, dined on salmon and risotto at the Watergate with some of Washington's media elite, under a strict agreement that none of the journalists would report what was said.

Nevertheless, Kurtz was able to report more than just the menu. He revealed who were among a floating group of 12 to 16 journalists, regularly invited to "uber-exclusive" dinners hosted by David Bradley, owner of the Atlantic, along with the lines of questioning some reporters pursued.

Kurtz, who did not attend the clandestine confab, conceded the journalists who disclosed a few details to him, "may have committed a minor infraction" of the non-disclosure rules, but insisted his sources were "careful not to provide more than a brief flavor of what was said."

However true that may be, it nevertheless underscores an important reality about "off-the-record" conversations, namely that the information often gets out.

As a Pentagon correspondent for CNN for 16 years, I attended more off-the-record dinners than I can count, and I often kicked off the session by announcing my own tongue-in- cheek definition of "off-the-record".

"Just to be clear and so there is no misunderstanding," I would proclaim in a somber voice, "when we say off the record, we mean not for reporting in any form, (pause for effect).. unless it's REALLY, REALLY good."

This always got a big laugh, but in fact, it's no joke. If a top official were to drop a bombshell at an off-the-record affair, especially before roomful of journalists, it would be only a matter of time before some enterprising reporter confirmed it from another source, and went with it. And all the other journalists know that.

You can almost hear the theme from "60 Minutes," as the clock ticks down to who will be the first reporter to come up with a plausible cover for disclosing the leak.

But the other big truth about these off-the-record gatherings is that, more often than not, little is said beyond what the source would say in public.

Sources like the off-the-record format because they know if they say something controversial or phrase it an inartful way, they will not be quoted, even anonymously, so they can relax. Had President Obama's faux pas, in which he compared his lack of bowling prowess to the Special Olympics, occurred in an off-the-record setting, the White House would not have had to apologize the next day.

Reporters like getting exclusive insights that might make help them then look more plugged-in than their less privileged colleagues, and that they don't have to rush to file a story immediately after the event.

That also means everyone can drink and engage in the social banter that makes the whole evening a nice break from the deadline pressures of daily reporting life.

But it's also the case that reporters do use general insights gleaned from off-the-record chats, especially when government officials provide context, such as the thinking behind policy decisions, or share unvarnished concerns, versus the carefully couched public pronouncements.

That kind of non-specific information can shape the tone of reporting, or suggest angles that are worth pursuing.

Reporters can also employ a tactic in which they adopt the insights as their own and simply "say it like they know it." A reporter might say, "I think the administration fears the war will get worse before it gets better." No attribution of any kind. Just a statement of the reporter's opinion. But that opinion might be based on the insights that came from a high official in an off-the-record setting.

Such a forum can provide useful leads to be followed, and can also be a place to nail down widely believed but never-officially-confirmed historical details. (Did the President really say that? Did you know at the time what was really happening?)

Sometimes when sources say "off-the-record" they really mean deep background, under which reports can use specific information, but with no attribution at all.

So it's important to clarify the ground rules.

But it's also important to remember, that nothing is ever truly off-the-record.

Jamie McIntyre (jamiejmcintyre@gmail.com) is the former senior pentagon correspondent for CNN. He is now a graduate student at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.