By:
September 20, 2021

“Off the record.”

It’s a well-known journalism phrase. So well known, in fact, that even those outside the business are familiar with it.

But what does it actually mean?

The common belief among many is that when a source tells a reporter something “off the record” that means the reporter cannot or should not publicly share that information. But that’s not exactly how it works. Just because a source says something is “off the record” does not mean it truly is “off the record.”

Here’s how it should work. A source should ask a reporter first if something can be off the record. Then the reporter can agree or refuse. The source then can decide whether or not they want to share that information.

If the reporter agrees to an off-the-record request, the ethical thing to do is not report or even repeat that information. Off-the-record comments are supposed to remain strictly between the source and the reporter.

So that’s why it was odd when two journalists — two very prominent journalists, as a matter of fact — were at odds over whether something was or was not off the record. The incident even had other journalists mulling over the policy.

Here’s what happened: A Politico newsletter, West Wing Playbook, wrote an item late last week about Washington Post opinion columnist Jennifer Rubin. The item called Rubin “one of the most reliable defenders of the Biden administration.” It also wrote, “It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship. Though it often dismisses the Beltway press, the administration can leverage the credibility that comes with a washingtonpost.com link. And Rubin’s columns are frequently among the most popular on the site, according to Washington Post employees. But Rubin’s emergence as one of the administration’s go-to validators has stoked some divisions among Democrats and within the Post newsroom itself.”

There’s a bunch more, which you can read for yourself. But that led to Rubin reaching out to Alex Thompson, one of the West Wing Playbook authors and a White House reporter for Politico. According to Thompson, Rubin sent him an email with the subject line of “OFF THE RECORD.”

Thompson tweeted, “Since we never agreed to conduct such an off-the-record conversation, we are now publishing it in full.” Then he published Rubin’s comments, which were critical of Politico and came off as a little whiny, but certainly weren’t earth-shattering, vulgar or even newsworthy.

So was Thompson out of line or perfectly within his right to publish what Rubin sent him?

Journalism rules are on his side. He’s right. He didn’t agree to Rubin’s off-the-record request so Rubin cannot claim that Thompson broke a promise to keep her comments private.

Now, one could argue that what Thompson did was a little shady. He clearly knew that Rubin wanted to keep her email just between the two of them and he went ahead and published it anyway.

Some suggested that Thompson could have deleted the email as soon as he saw the “off the record” subject line. In other words, he could have treated Rubin’s subject line as a request to keep it off the record. If he didn’t want to honor that, he could have deleted the email. Or that once he opened the email, he was, in effect, agreeing to keep the exchange private.

That might have been the decent thing to do. But he wasn’t obligated to do so.

New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman weighed in, tweeting, “For the uninitiated – and the initiated pretending they don’t know because it’s a fun way to slam a reporter – off the record is an agreement. Don’t send an email saying OTR – especially when you’re ostensibly in journalism! – and not wait for the reporter to agree.”

She added, “This is really basic stuff, and folks in the current White House – many of whom have long experience dealing with reporters – know this. People can take issue with the timing of a story or the subject of a story. But suggesting the reporter did something nefarious when the person didn’t follow the way OTR works is wrong.”

Rubin tweeted back, “no, just really low class when dealing with a fellow journalist on something not a newsworthy scoop! I mean really, who behaves that way…”

Haberman wasn’t having it, tweeting: “Why is this his responsibility and not yours to know how journalism works?

So bottom line: Thompson’s reputation might take a hit among some for publishing something that Rubin asked to be off the record, but he didn’t break one of journalism’s golden rules and Rubin should have known better than to simply trust Thompson wouldn’t run what she sent him.

Breyer’s retirement plans

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was interviewed by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Sunday. The biggest question, of course, is how much longer Breyer is going to remain on the bench. Many on the left are pushing for the liberal Breyer, who turned 83 last month, to step down while there is a Democrat in the White House.

Zakaria asked a good question: “So is this ideal of a nonpolitical court, of a nonpartisan court, so important to you that you are willing to risk the fact that your successor might undo much of what you regard as the good you’ve done and might take the court and the country in a very different direction?”

Breyer knew exactly what Zakaria was getting at.

“Now, what you’re doing is asking about — will I retire, and eventually I will,” Breyer said. “I don’t want to die there in office, and I haven’t decided exactly when, but there are a lot of considerations and I hope I take them all into account properly. And when the time comes to announce something, I will. But not here now.”

This is what Breyer has been saying for a while now. He told The New York Times’ Adam Liptak pretty much the same thing last month. But Breyer still hasn’t detailed an exit plan.

Breyer has a new book out: “The Authority of the Court and the Peril of Politics.” It’s a quick read — just 101 pages. Breyer idealistically writes that the Supreme Court shouldn’t be seen as a partisan institution. But in a column (with the headline “Breyer’s airbrushed portrayal of the judicial process”), Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Ruth Marcus asks if the timing of Breyer’s book could be any worse. Marcus writes the book “comes on the heels of the decision by five (Supreme Court justices) to let a blatantly unconstitutional Texas abortion law take effect.”

Marcus went on to write, “I don’t want to sound too acerbic about Breyer here. I like and respect him. Even more, I feel for him. If you have devoted your life to an institution, and fear for its future, it is painful to watch, no less acknowledge, what is happening to it.”

An appeal to the unvaccinated

(Courtesy: Detroit Free Press)

Sunday’s Detroit Free Press was dedicated to COVID-19 vaccines, including an editorial from Free Press editor Peter Bhatia: “An appeal to vaccinated Free Press readers.”

Bhatia writes, “And after nine months in which neither the manifest risk of death nor the pleas of epidemiological experts, elected leaders and mainstream media have turned the tide, it’s increasingly apparent that you, the vaccinated, are the last, best hope to overcome the hesitance and distrust of the unvaccinated minority. That’s why we’re seeking to enlist you in a benevolent conspiracy — a team effort to persuade our unvaccinated family members, friends, neighbors and work colleagues to join in the unfinished war against COVID-19.”

Bhatia then goes over the statistics and ideas on how to convince the unvaccinated to get the shot.

In addition, the Free Press’ Kristen Jordan Shamus writes “The truth about COVID-19 vaccines. Everything you need to know.” Those are just two of the pieces among the 11 pages dedicated to COVID-19 vaccines.

The Greatest

Ken Burns’ four-part documentary on Muhammad Ali started Sunday night. Once again, the director known for his PBS documentaries about the Civil War, baseball, jazz, the Vietnam War and many others appears to have made a fascinating documentary about something relevant to American life.

CNN’s Brian Lowry writes, “The documentary deftly balances Ali’s biography and complicated personal life with his extraordinary gifts as a boxer, combining stunning hand and foot speed for a heavyweight with an ability to take a punch that would eventually become a liability, given the enormous toll that all those blows took on him.”

In a guest column by Mike Pride in the Tampa Bay Times, Burns said, “Ali was the greatest athlete of the 20th century, probably the greatest athlete of all time, who intersected with all the great American great themes of his time and ours — about race, about culture, about Black identity, about religion and faith, about politics and war, about his personal relations with women.”

Reporting on climate

(Courtesy: NBC News)

NBC News’ topic of the week will be the climate. The special series, called “Climate Challenge,” will air across the “Today” show, the “NBC Nightly News,” as well as MSNBC, NBC News NOW and NBCNews.com.

Speaking of NBC, “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt will sit down with Space X’s all-civilian Inspiration4 crew for an interview that will air today on the “Today” show and the “NBC Nightly News.”

The Facebook Files

Throughout last week, I linked to several stories from The Facebook Files — The Wall Street Journal’s superb deep dive into the social media giant and some of the harm it can cause. If you haven’t read it, it really is worth your time.

Colorado Congressman Ken Buck tweeted, “Big Tech is the new Big Tobacco. They are harming our kids for profit.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal also told the Journal, “Facebook seems to be taking a page from the textbook of Big Tobacco — targeting teams with potentially dangerous products while masking the science in public.”

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, put out a statement over the weekend with the headline, “What the Wall Street Journal got wrong.”

Clegg wrote, “At the heart of this series is an allegation that is just plain false: that Facebook conducts research and then systematically and willfully ignores it if the findings are inconvenient for the company. This impugns the motives and hard work of thousands of researchers, policy experts and engineers at Facebook who strive to improve the quality of our products, and to understand their wider (positive and negative) impact. It’s a claim which could only be made by cherry-picking selective quotes from individual pieces of leaked material in a way that presents complex and nuanced issues as if there is only ever one right answer.”

But as CNN’s Brian Stelter notes, “The Journal relied on internal company documents it obtained to show Facebook (FB) knows, ‘in acute detail,’ about the problems with its platforms. The assorted harms to users are well-documented. But, in the words of the Journal, Facebook ‘hasn’t fixed’ the flaws.”

And check out this tweet from New York Times tech reporter Cecilia King about Facebook’s statement: “In my view, the summary: the WSJ series is accurate. We’re not disputing the facts, FB says.”

In the wake of the WSJ report, The Washington Post’s Will Oremus has analysis with “Facebook keeps researching its own harms — and burying the findings.”

A quiet weekend

The police were ready. The media was definitely ready. But, it turns out that the rally on Saturday in Washington, D.C., to protest for those criminally charged in the Jan. 6 insurrection turned out to be a dud. Which was, obviously, a good thing considering the warnings of potential violence.

The Washington Post’s Rachel Weiner wrote, “The rally’s poor attendance came as no surprise — and did not necessarily signal a weakening of attempts on the right to falsely recast the deadly riot of Jan. 6 as something more benign.”

However, Washington Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee told NBC News the crowd was “about what we expected.” Perhaps the increased police presence drove down the numbers.

I turned on CNN on Saturday and reports were that there might have been as many journalists on the scene as protesters.

Weiner wrote, “The D.C. rally’s low turnout, combined with a robust news media presence, led to sometimes surreal scenes. Protesters were so scarce that reporters and television news crews began queuing up to obtain interviews. By afternoon the rally had settled into a predictable cycle, as journalists swarmed to minor altercations or police inquiries that quickly evaporated.”

Media tidbits

Fans at Saturday night’s “white out” game at Penn State against Auburn. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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