Journalism has seen a creeping dynamic of public officials withdrawing into the shadows. Since any comment risks going viral (looking at you, Richard Mourdock), top officials increasingly don’t want to be quoted, prefacing all their media comments with requests that the conversation stay “off the record” so the individual can talk more freely. This happens to me on a consistent basis.
I often don’t use the off the record stuff I’m passed, but you see sources like “senior Administration official” in the pages of leading newspapers every day. Political elites have become both paranoid about making a comment that will boomerang on them, and confident that they can dictate terms to a pliant media.
The Des Moines Register, in the unique position of being the top news source in a swing state, played against this type, if only a bit. Their strategy, when President Obama called and requested that an interview be held off the record, was to take the interview, and then write an open letter to the campaign, embarrassing them for the terms of the interview and urging them to put it on the record.
The conference call lasted nearly 30 minutes and was an incredibly informative exchange of questions, answers and an insightful glimpse into the president’s vision for a second term. He made a genuine and passionate case for our endorsement and for reelection.
Just two weeks before Election Day, the discussion, I believe, would have been valuable to all voters, but especially those in Iowa and around the country who have yet to decide between the incumbent Democrat and his Republican opponent.
Unfortunately, what we discussed was off-the-record. It was a condition, we were told, set by the White House [...]
…this blog, I hope, reveals in a transparent way the rigors of covering a heated presidential race in a critical swing state and the circumstances that unfold far from the view of our readers.
Yet, it also speaks to the transparency all voters should demand from the candidates. They want more than just repetitive sound bites on the campaign trail or rehearsed one-liners from debate stages.
Our expectation is that the answer to one of the most important questions the Register ever can ask a politician –- “Why should you be our president?” –- deserves to be shared with voters.
Today, campaign officials made available the entire transcript of the phone call with the Des Moines Register. The shaming tactic – and the fact that Mitt Romney previously agreed to an editorial board interview that was recorded for audio – did the trick.
Incidentally, the transcript reveals a perfectly banal set of familiar talking points, with the President making his case for re-election without deviating from things he has said repeatedly in public. There was no earthly reason for this ever to be off the record. The amusing passage comes when Obama says “And since this is off the record, I will just be very blunt,” and then goes on to say that the far right-wing of the Republican Party has damaged their standing with Latino voters, which isn’t blunt at all but just completely obvious, and something Obama has said constantly.
Not every news outlet has the leverage of a swing-state editorial board. But there’s value in news media just refusing to play along with what is now a near-constant request for off-the-record conversations. They play a role in the media landscape, but increasingly they have played an exclusive role. The constant embargoes and background conversations, often on the most trivial of items, damage the relationship between the press and the people they cover. Journalists need to grow a backbone. Shaming is at least one technique to end this race off the record.