Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Is "Off the Record" Dead? 

Freedom of speech is dead, bemoans Kathleen Parker in her Orlando Sentinel column picked up in today's San Diego Union-Tribune. Ms. Parker looks at “Easongate” and finds that the result of reporting Eason Jordan's ostensibly off-the-record remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month will be a chilling effect on “the freewheeling, unfettered expression of thoughts and ideas without fear of censure.” I respectfully disagree.

I think the major effect of episodes like “Easongate” will be a chilling effect on people of influence making outrageous statements that they can't back up with facts. To me, that's a feature, not a bug.

“'Off the record,'” says Ms. Parker, “means you're allowed to say what you think with impunity and live to see your next paycheck.” Maybe so, but it isn't, or at least shouldn't be, a license to pass off fiction as truth, especially at a gathering of rich and powerful from all over the world. Setting aside the question of why “off the record” sessions were evidently being videotaped by the WEF sponsors of the Davos gabfest, it seems pretty clear to me that the meaning of the term “off the record” as used in Davos is a lot different from what many of us ordinary folks understand. Not being a professional journalist, I think it means something akin to a person giving a reporter information that the reporter can't use in a story or cite to other potential sources, unless the same information is obtained and verified from other independent sources. In Davos the powers that be evidently thought “off the record” meant they had the right to censor and spin what was released for public consumption.

Ms. Parker cites Jeff Jarvis telling the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz that “off the record” is dead. I for one am not so sure that's necessarily a bad thing. To my thinking, “off the record” and “journalistic privilege” as claimed most recently by Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matt Cooper of the Washington Post are two sides of the same coin, i.e., they are both used to permit people in positions of power to influence, if not control, public opinion without being held accountable for their statements. Of course journalists, especially the investigative subspecies, love these devices, because it makes their jobs much easier. It's a heck of a lot easier to find creepy-crawlies when someone tells you which rocks to turn over. But easier doesn't equate to essential.

If “off the record” has a legitimate place, I believe it is only in circumstances that more closely resemble a doctor's office or the confessional than a gala for the international power elite. Eason Jordan got in trouble because was trying to have it both ways in Davos – he wanted to speak on the record for his immediate audience, but off the record for the masses. Jeff Jarvis is probably right to an extent: “off the record” is dead -- at least with respect to politicians, celebrities and the rich and powerful, and they should be careful not to state something as fact unless they have the evidence to back it up.

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