Sunday, April 12, 2009

A note on going 'off the record'

It’s a phrase many congressional staffers in DC love to say but few understand, The West Wing having ruined an entire generation. But unlike what some may imagine, going off the record is typically the prerogative of the journalist, who usually lays out ground rules before an interview and grant requests for secrecy as they come up, and not something an interviewee normally unilaterally declares. However, these days all too many staffers believe they can utter a magic three word phrase -- “off the record” -- at any given point and in any given situation, including at public forums before hundreds if not thousands of people, and expect their trivial remarks to be treated as secret.

For instance: Last week I attended a conference on energy and climate policy hosted by a federal agency at the convention center here in Washington. The conference itself was fairly unremarkable, as these things tend to be, but for the attempt by a veteran Senate aide to go “off the record” while participating in a panel discussion on the future of energy/climate policy.

Speaking before a crowd of over 1,000 people, Joe Goffman, a top aide to Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), implored reporters to not report on his remarks, and asked those in attendance to not to utter a word about the nature of his remarks to any seedy journalists that might cross their path. That Goffman, a former legislative director for Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), was participating in a recorded discussion at a public (i.e. on the record) event appeared not to matter, nor did the fact that none of the other congressional and White House staff on the panel requested such a privilege.

After the panel and some not-exactly-groundbreaking remarks -- the Senate isn’t going to do a whole lot on climate change legislation until the House does -- Goffman spoke to a group of people that had gathered around him to ask some followup questions. In the middle of answering a question about cap-and-trade, however, it occurred to him that the middle-aged woman questioning him just might be a journalist. Naturally when asked if she was, she responded in the affirmative -- as if her notepad and tape recorder were not evidence enough -- prompting an uncomfortable Goffman to halt his answer and reiterate that all his comments, including those he just made to the reporter, were “off the record.”

The reporter in question, showing more spunk than one might have expected at first glance, reminded Goffman that she told him she was a reporter when she first approached him. After he denied this, she reminded him that he had repeated her affiliation back to her. He shrugged.

A friendly reminder to congressional staff: if you don’t want your comments publicized, don’t agree to speak at major conferences before hundreds of people -- or, as in another instance, during a panel discussion being broadcast on the web for whoever wants to see it. In the age of the Internet and blogs, carving out special exceptions for the professional press -- maintaining they can’t disseminate the great knowledge you impart but lobbyists and others can -- is discriminatory and of dubious value. Stop it.


  1. I think you're right about the pernicious television influence. That poor staffer seems stunned that the screenplay he was working didn't match the world he was experiencing.

  2. I'd like to take this comment off the record: this guy is a tool.

  3. Anonymous1:16 PM

    'Off the record' is an agreement between TWO parties, the journalist and the source. If the journalist doesn't agree beforehand, nothing is 'off the record.' So in this case, any journalist or blogger or member of the public in the crowd could have -- and should have -- taken down anything this source said and published it however they wished, regardless of his claims it was 'off the record.'

  4. Anonymous11:39 PM

    Why is it relevant that the woman journalist was "middle-aged?"

  5. I suppose I felt the fact the woman journalist was "middle-aged" was relevant only because the reporters I typically see covering these type of conferences tend to be in their 20s and 30s. The older journalists I see are the ones that have spent several decades covering a niche issue -- like, say, natural gas markets -- and who by virtue of their having been employed in Washington so long I am inclined (perhaps unfairly) to believe are less likely to object to inside-the-Beltwayisms like going "off the record" at a public event.