The Slow Death Of “Off The Record”

Whether it’s good or bad, it looks like “off the record” is dying a slow death, the latest victim of ubiquitous recording technology.

In case you missed it, ABC’s Terry Moran hijacked a juicy tidbit from a CNBC interview with President Obama. There are a serious ethical issues associated with ABC employees listening in on a competitor interview (they “share a fiber optic line” according to AP). There are additional ethical issues associated with leaking a quote out of context.

Off The Record, Deconstructed
“Off the record” is sometimes used by journalists to encourage a source to provide background for a story, background from a subject matter expert who may be explicitly prohibited from talking to the press. So long as the reporter is able to verify information from one or two other sources (practices differ), most media outlets are comfortable with running the story.

Sometimes sources use journalists, demanding “off the record” cover before talking about controversial subjects. And sometimes these “off the record” conversations are partisan attacks. Think Joe Wilson (not the “liar” one) and the Valerie Plame mess.

And sometimes, as in the CNBC interview, the journalist is “warming up” the source, hoping that if the source is relaxed during the actual interview that he might say something unplanned, spontaneous. In this case, the warm-up chatter was about Kanye West. West was rude at Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards, interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance of her award by asserting that Beyonce, not Swift, deserved the award.

Jackass. “Inappropriately rude.”

Sounds spot on, to me.

The Terry Moran Mess
We’ll probably never know which ABC employee passed along this juicy tidbit to Moran. Just like we’ll probably never know who passed along the audio recording (quality very good) to TMZ.

Moran’s Twitter page has a one-line bio: “Nightline co-anchor.” Although his avatar looks like a TV screen capture, there is nothing on the page to suggest that Moran is tweeting in his capacity as an ABC employee. He doesn’t tweet often; his tweets are clearly personal in nature (ie, they express opinion).

Moran’s tweet (which he deleted, but which lives on in RT infamy) says far more about him (“Now THAT’S presidential”) than it does about Obama.

Nevertheless, there are two lessons for politcos and journalists to take away:

  • There is no such thing as truly off-the-record today. Obama should remember San Francisco, 2008, as well as September 2009.
  • Journalists who tweet need to be mindful; Twitter is not an act-first-think-later medium for them, or for anyone with influence.