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Why “Off The Record” Is Tricky – And Michael Hastings Didn’t Do Anything Wrong

Because my media career essentially started as an NBC Page, I have a lot of friends who are fellow former pages who now work at networks and other areas of the media I cover. So in social settings, I hear a lot of “this is off the record,” said jokingly but also, meant quite seriously.

Today an Atlantic column tackles the tricky issue of “off the record.”

Interestingly, the column is written by two NBCersChuck Todd and Albert Oetgen, managing editor for NBC News’ Washington bureau. The news peg here is the Gen. McChrystal Rolling Stone profile by Michael Hastings that led to his departure, and to reporters and politicians alike raising questions over whether the parameters were clear. Here’s that argument, specifically related to the “Joe ‘Bite Me'” quote:

It was offensive to official Washington, not for its substance, but for its ham-handed execution.

Sure, we talk like that all the time among ourselves, veteran insiders told one another. But how in the world did that stuff get into print? How, especially, did McChrystal let himself get connected to some of that language? And, oh, by the way, since when did it become okay to use cheap shot, schoolyard barbs uttered by unidentified and unaccountable mid-level staffers to disparage the McChrystals and Bidens of the world?

But this ignores the crux of the Rolling Stone issue – why would these “unidentified and unaccountable mid-level staffers” make these comments around a person who was very clearly not just a journalist, but specifically writing a feature story that profiled their boss? Whatever argument Todd and Oetgen present is predicated on the fact that they would never do what Hastings did because they’d lose their much-sought-after access, and not because the information was gathered in a nefarious way.

Look at how Ari Fleischer critiques the situation. “You don’t know how deeply it offends me as a public relations professional to allow a reporter that kind of access,” he tells the Atlantic. He’d never allow the access. That’s an important distinction. He’s taking a shot at the amateurish PR mechanism employed by McChrystal’s people, but specifically not at Hastings’ reporting.

Todd and Oetgen also use the McCrystal story to explore another juicy issue – what does “off the record” mean? They ask NBC’s Pete Williams, now a journalist and former Pentagon spokesman, for his rules.

* “There is ‘On The Record.’ Quoting verbatim with attribution: ‘Santa Claus is a fraud,’ said Pete Williams.”
* “There is ‘On Background.’ You can use the information without attribution, or with generic attribution: ‘Santa Claus is a fraud,’ said a network correspondent.”
* “There is ‘Off The Record.’ You know it, you can shop it around, act on it, but you can’t report it, until you get it somewhere else.”
* “Where the thing begins to get hazy is around the idea of Deep Background, the shadowy territory between On Background and Off The Record: ‘NBC News has learned that some network correspondents think Santa Claus is a fraud.'”

For what it’s worth, my definition of off the record is probably the same as Robert Gibbs‘ definition of “way, way, way off the record,” which he says he uses “if I don’t want that reporter to even act upon the tip.”

There’s also something else about “off the record” that’s important – it is extremely overused. Whether it’s a source or a publicist, people get comfortable dropping the “off the record” line when it’s not necessary. Let’s say I ask a source and she says that, off the record, she doesn’t know the answer, off the record isn’t necessary. What would I do, write, “Oprah says she doesn’t know the answer?” There’s too much off the record, and even Williams admits this. “You really need to push them a little,” Williams said. “You need to ask ‘Why can’t this be on the record?’ Especially if what they are saying has to do with policy as opposed to being strictly informational.”

Which brings us back to McChrystal. Doesn’t this prove Hastings did a great job, somehow got these subjects to open up when they shouldn’t have, and got a story that was honest? If it wasn’t true, then go after him. But if he’s reporting truth, that, upon reflection these “unidentified and unaccountable mid-level staffers” would rather he not have reported as background quotes, he’s in the clear. He was doing his job.

Of course, when I go to a bar and hang out with my friends who work at MSNBC or CNN or Fox, and they tell me something they really shouldn’t and throw a “that’s off the record!” out there, I’ll let them slide. Almost always. Unless it’s really good. Then I’ll bug them about it later.

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