So, I have no idea if Kanye West is a jackass. I don’t know him. I know that taking the microphone from someone who just won an award and basically yelling out that she didn’t really deserve that award is a pretty jackass thing to do. But as to whether he is a full out jackass in his day-to-day life — beats the hell out of me.
But the fact that President Obama called him a jackass, and that was instantly twittered or tweeted or, the term I prefer, “twoked” around the world, illustrates a pretty big point I have made over and over to the people who I speak to as a journalist — there is NO SUCH THING as off the record.
Mr. President, you are talking to REPORTERS. You’re on the record.
Last year, I wrote what I would like to refer to as a pretty “scathing” article (that’s a fun word — “scathing” — say it with me — “scathing”) regarding the city administrator where I work. Seems Mr. Administrator was irritated with me as I questioned why agenda items were being mysteriously left off of the AGENDA. Flustered, he began a tirade of “So, chastise me, it’s my fault, I’m the city administrator” and “Maybe because I didn’t want to chastise myself in public” and “Maybe I didn’t want to show my lack of professionalism by not bringing it up. I don’t know why I didn’t do it. I can’t answer that question” and “In the mad rush of the 11th hour I didn’t get it on there, that’s my mistake.”
First — I never got the 11th hour thing, meetings are every other week. But I digress. After this article was printed, everyone from the police chief to my Dad told me I had made the administrator look like an ass. But I most certainly did not. He made himself look like an ass. I just printed it. The administrator eventually called me, hollered at me, HUNG UP on me only to call me back. He said, “I thought we were just having a casual conversation.” I had to remind him, we’re not buddies. I’m a reporter. Asking you questions. You’re on the record.
(Just a little FYI here — this man then refused to talk to me for a year, and you know what, it didn’t affect my ability to report on city news even one little bit.)
Public official + talking to a reporter = ON THE RECORD.
Of course there are exceptions. You certainly don’t want to quote everything someone says to you. This is your bread and butter as a reporter, and if you want people to talk to you, you must be respectful. You must respect their boundaries, at least to a degree. If someone specifically tells me “off the record” or “please don’t print that,” if it is a reasonable request, of course I will honor it. For example, if they say, “off the record, I think that city official is a total jerk,” there’s no point in priniting it, other than to cause trouble, which isn’t respectable journalism. That’s why I’m confused why people were so hurried to repeat the President’s comment. It only serves to stir up trouble, for everyone, inlcuding the people who let it out. But — it wasn’t LEAKED. He said it. To a reporter.
Now, if someone were to say to me, “off the record, I’m the one who stole all the money,” then clearly, all bets are off. That’s getting printed, buddy.
If someone will only speak to you off the record, sure, that’s good for background information. But if you cannot get the information verified, and they still won’t go “on the record,” then you’re wasting your time. I doubt that, had I been there, that I would have posted a blog entry about what the President said. But I certainly would have gossiped about it with other people. It was the President, after all. And I don’t know why Terry Moran thought a Twitter post with his opinion on something that he didn’t hear directly was a good idea, career wise. I mean, really, Terry, if that is you real name? Really? You want to burn a bridge… with the PRESIDENT? Smart move.
This whole thing reeks of “Gotcha Journalism,” a phrase which I find to be completely and utterly ridiculous (tangent again — Sarah Palin sure does a good job making up catch phrases for things that don’t exist. Gotcha Journalism, Death Panels. She should start her own urban dictionary). There’s no “gotcha” in it. YOU ARE TALKING TO A REPORTER. No matter how embarrassed people are when they get busted saying something stupid, they still weren’t “”gotcha-ed.” They said what they were thinking. They just happened to say it to someone with a recording device and a handy little notebook. There’s really nothing I can say or ask that will elicit a response from someone which isn’t somehow true. There isn’t a question I can ask that can suddenly make them blurt out something that they absolutely didn’t mean to say.
As journalists, we need to find a balance between what the public needs to know and what is good old fashioned gossip. But if you’re rolling, then they are on the record. It’s not the journalists who need to be careful. It’s the people who they are speaking to who need to think twice before opening their mouths.