Obama on Kanye West: Is the President Ever Off-the-Record?

In the flap about ABC reporter Terry Moran’s tweet about President Barack Obama calling Kanye West a jackass, most people are missing the point. It’s not really about what Moran did. It’s about whether the president of United States is ever off the record.

Watchdog reporters use “off-the-record” as a tool to protect sources with critical information of significant public importance. It means, “I won’t attribute this information to you. Instead I will find another source or simply credit it to an anonymous source.” Anonymity is most useful with a vulnerable whistle-blower who might get fired or suffer other significant punishment for releasing information. 

Off-the-record is a promise between a journalist and a source. Reporters go to jail in order to keep that promise.

In the Obama interview, a CNBC crew questioning the president fed audio and video to a pool of other journalists. It would have been inappropriate for CNBC to promise off-the-record status on behalf of the entire pool of journalists. So when Moran heard Obama’s comment about West interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, it was appropriate for him to report it.

I have qualms about ever letting the president of the United States go off the record. He’s the most powerful man in the world. Perhaps an experienced White House reporter could find a story for which the president’s off-the-record comments were critical to getting the truth to the public. But that decision would be made with the highest level of editor.

I suspect that the status of the conversation between CNBC and Obama was unclear to everyone involved. Reporters often conduct a casual conversation before or after an official interview. That’s how reporters and sources get to know each other. But that’s not the same as off-the-record, and the president of all people knows that.

If in the course of the conversation, the president offers his opinion about the most talked-about event of the day, it’s fair game — and Twitter is the ideal place to report it. Obama’s comment that West was a jackass is the type of news that’s worth no more than 140 characters.

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