So it looks like erstwhile Obama adviser Samantha Power, for the second time in just over a month, has said something to a reporter, then tried, unsuccessfully, to have it removed from the record.
In early March, as everyone now knows, Power told a reporter for The Scotsman that Hillary Clinton was “a monster.” She immediately added, “That’s off the record,” but the reporter, Gerri Peev, disagreed, and printed the comment. Power resigned from Obama’s campaign shortly thereafter.
Today, the Ottawa Citizen’s Paul Gessell reports that, in an interview yesterday, Power mused about the day when North America is ruled by Obama in the U.S. and the Liberal Party politician Michael Ignatieff in Canada—then called back “in a panic” two minutes later, saying that her talk of an “Ignatieff-Barack continent is probably pretty stupid,” and asking to have it taken off the record.
Not only did Gessell deny that request, he also seems to have considered that second conversation on the record too, since he went ahead and wrote about it, as CJR’s Clint Hendler noted yesterday.
What strikes me here—aside from the obvious point that, for her own good, Power should probably stay away from reporters—is the fact that both of these episodes involved foreign news outlets.
That doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Can anyone recall a recent instance where a political reporter for an American outlet has published comments by a well-connected interview subject, despite an explicit request from the subject not to do so? I can’t.
I’d argue that that’s in part because, in this country, reporters have a less antagonistic relationship with their sources, and denying a source’s explicit request for confidentiality is generally seen as not quite above-board—to say nothing of bad for one’s access to future information.
Both Peev and Gessell acted correctly in these cases. Both understood that their first duty is not to their source but to their readers. And from that standpoint, the upside of giving readers the full story about a conversation with a close Obama associate (whether or not she’s still active in the campaign) clearly outweighed the hypothetical downside of losing access to Power or the Obama campaign in the future. (Of course, the fact that these were foreign outlets meant that they probably had little access to fear losing—which, admittedly, might be an additional reason why foreign reporters writing about American subjects might be more likely than American ones to make this tradeoff.)
But Gessell went even further. Not only did he deny the subject’s request to take certain comments off the record, he then treated that request as itself on the record. No doubt many in the American press would disavow that second move as unacceptably dishonest.
I disagree. One can understand Power feeling betrayed, but frankly, that’s her problem. Again, the reporter’s duty is to his readers, and if he judges that he can provide them with more accurate, important information by breaking an understanding with a source (either explicit or implicit—it’s unclear which it was in the case of the second Power-Gessell conversation), then he should do it. For obvious reasons, it’s not in a reporter’s interest to make a habit of doing this with sources he hopes to come back to in the future, but that’s no reason why he shouldn’t sometimes make the calculation to do so.
This brings up an important larger point. During the Valerie Plame affair, a slew of big-name journalists went to great lengths to avoid breaking a pledge of confidentiality to a source—even though that source had likely broken the law and lied to them, and even though the source’s identity had surely become far more newsworthy than any hypothetical future information that the journalists might have lost out on as a result of breaking their pledges.
That may have served their careers, but it didn’t serve the public interest. Off-the-record agreements between reporters and sources are of no value in and of themselves. They’re valuable only in so far as they ultimately help reporters to offer readers more information. In cases where they have the opposite effect—as in the Plame saga, and in both of the Power cases—reporters should feel no compunction about disregarding them.