“Never let them go off the record.”
Such was the good advice I once received from former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming – my graduate school professor and political sage who has had some colorful wrestling matches with the media. He details the scuffles in his book, “Right in the Old Gazoo: A Lifetime of Scrapping With the Press.”
As Simpson sees it, the practice of reporters having “off the record” conversations creates more problems than it solves.
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“When someone says they’d like to talk to you off the record, that should be when you close your notebook and say the interview is over,” he said.
It seems there are a lot of supposedly seasoned journalists out there who need to take this lesson to heart.
Here’s what I learned the hard way after 20 years of covering political scandals and other sensitive stories: Letting sources speak off the record – that is, leaving behind no paper trail of what they actually said – gives them a license to lie.
It’ll come back to bite you. The subject of the interview gets to put ideas in your head, and maybe steer a particular story in one direction or another without accountability. If what they tell you isn’t true, you can’t very well come back to them later, and say: “Well, you said this.” There’s not supposed to be a record that they said anything at all.
That’s the catch. You think you’re getting this big scoop, when you could just be getting the runaround.
Overall, having an off-the-record conversation is a great deal for the source, and a lousy one for the journalist.
Apparently, it’s even worse when the person doing most of the talking is President-elect Donald Trump. In that case, an “off-the-record” meeting can be a nightmare for journalists.
And that pretty much describes what happened recently at Trump Tower in New York, when about 30 television reporters, anchors and executives meandered into an ambush. For 18 months, much of the broadcast news industry beat up Trump – sometimes unfairly. The private meeting gave the president-elect the chance to get even.
Later, to twist the knife, it appears that Team Trump leaked their own version of the meeting’s events to The New York Post, making the high-priced television talent look like petulant children who had been taken to the woodshed. The whole spectacle went a long way toward eroding what little prestige the profession has left.
The presidential election had already taught us that the media often lack objectivity. Now, come to find out, some elements of it also lack spine.
Journalism fared better the next day when Trump visited the offices of The New York Times. The president-elect’s advisers tried to make that meeting off the record as well, but the Times objected. The compromise? Two meetings. The first – between Trump and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger – was private. But the second – in which the president-elect met with reporters, editors, columnists and editorial writers – was on the record.
And out in the open. Times reporters were using Twitter to pass along details of the meeting, as they were unfolding. Columnists asked pointed questions, and then used their real estate in the newspaper to recount Trump’s answers.
By all accounts, Trump was blunt about what he considers the newspaper’s harsh and unfair coverage of his campaign.
But it was kid glove treatment compared with what he did to the poor hapless television journalists.
“It was like a f------- firing squad,” one source told The New York Post. “Trump started with (CNN chief) Jeff Zucker and said, ‘I hate your network, everyone at CNN is a liar and you should be ashamed.’ ”
Welcome to “TV Journalist Apprentice.” Zucker got a worse dressing down than Gary Busey, Gene Simmons or Meatloaf.
That’s what happens when you scamper over to Trump Tower when a demagogic blowhard blows his whistle, and then agree that the whole session will be off the record – at least until your host apparently breaks the deal to humiliate you.
Another source told the paper: “Trump kept saying, ‘We’re in a room of liars, the deceitful, dishonest media who got it all wrong.’ He addressed everyone in the room. … It was a horrible meeting.”
I don’t know about that. It sounds like a well-deserved spanking of arrogant newspeople who – because of their Manhattan elitism and dismissive attitude toward working-class whites – missed the big story.
Contact Ruben Navarrette at firstname.lastname@example.org.