Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Off the record, I didn't talk to you

The words "off the record" are thrown about so often in Washington that it's sometimes evident the employer of the phrase is unfamiliar with its actual meaning, instead just habitually repeating savvy-sounding jargon they heard their colleagues or the serious-looking people on TV say. Other times it seems its sheer arrogance -- or perhaps a genuine lack of awareness -- at play, like when an aide to Senator Barbara Boxer declared his comments during a panel discussion before hundreds of policy wonks and energy industry officials were not to be reported by any member of the press.

The latest case clearly falls in the former category: Seeking a comment from an industry trade group for a story, I emailed the group's spokeswoman asking her if she'd like to weigh in. Moments later, I got a response declaring that -- "OFF THE RECORD" -- her organization was declining to comment. Try conveying that in a story.

"A request for comment from the group was received."
"Asked to comment on the controversy, the group's spokesperson responded."
"A spokeswoman for the group replied to a request for comment. Or didn't."

Tempted to go with, "A spokeswoman for the group, responding to a request for comment, became incoherent", I settled with, "A spokesperson for the group declined to comment." I'm confident the journalism gods (gods . . . ha!) won't be sending a lightning bolt my way.

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