To be sure, the quote at hand does not address the world’s most pressing issue.
But earlier this week, when CNBC’s John Harwood asked the President about Kanye West’s usurping of Taylor Swift’s MTV Video Award win, and the leader of the free world called the stage-stealing entertainer a “jackass,” it set off an comedy of errors, manners, and journalism ethics for the Internet age.
Much of the drama, as it often does in media kerfuffles, seems to stem from three simple words: off the record.
The world learned about Obama’s candid opinion via an errant tweet from ABC anchor Terry Moran, who has over 1 million Twitter followers. But how did Moran find out about comments—off-the-record or not—that hadn’t yet been aired by his competitors over at CNBC?
“It’s quite simple,” says ABC spokesperson Jeffrey Schneider. As a cost-saving measure, ABC and NBC (along with Bloomberg News) share a fiber cable between Washington and New York. The cable allows for quick streaming of raw video between their DC bureaus and their headquarters up north. With the cable, there’s no need to courier tape up and down the East Coast, or to use satellite trucks and feeds, which, if un-encrypted, anyone with the right equipment can listen in on.
While the three news organizations are, as a technical matter, free to listen in on whatever comes across the shared cable, poaching and reporting video or information from the other parties sharing the wire is, Schneider says, off limits—until the feeding party publicly reports it.
“The practice is that we respect each others’ feeds,” says Schneider.
But in the highly competitive news business, that respectful practice seems to fall short of an absolute trust: the nominal partners, Schneider notes, are wary about letting their scoops be snatched.
“They are probably very thoughtful about what they put on the fiber, as are we,” he admits. “I can’t imagine a situation where our investigative team would stream something big from Washington to New York that they hadn’t reported yet and that others could see.”
In any case, as far as the Kanye matter goes, it’s clear that someone was watching at ABC, and saw Obama sit down at the White House with Harwood, and casually toss off the fateful opinion: “He’s a jackass.”
Schneider was reluctant to detail who, exactly, was watching, or what exactly happened after the remark was heard at ABC. But he says that e-mails discussing how to cover the quote, and the quote itself, went circulating among ABC journalists. It got to the point where a blog post disclosing the remark was ready to be posted on ABC’s official site.
While that post never made it up, Moran released the “jackass” quote to his Twitter feed. (Two other staffers, who presumably have nowhere close to the amount of followers as their Nightline co-anchoring colleague, also posted the information on Twitter and on Facebook.) Moran’s tweet was, of course, quickly and widely re-tweeted, and even though Moran and the other staffers pulled down their posts upon realizing the quote’s source, the word was out—irretrievably.
ABC apologized for the error to CNBC via discussion at “the highest levels,” according to Schneider, and issued a brief, and somewhat unclear, statement on the matter:
In the process of reporting on remarks by President Obama that were made during a CNBC interview, ABC News employees prematurely tweeted a portion of those remarks that turned out to be from an off-the-record portion of the interview. This was done before our editorial process had been completed. That was wrong. We apologize to the White House and CNBC and are taking steps to ensure that it will not happen again.
While the statement mentions that ABC came to view the remarks in question as having been offered off-the-record, Schneider says that fact was essentially immaterial—what was really amiss was ABC’s reporting on content that it had available to it only by virtue of the network’s narrow technical collaboration with NBC.
“I hate to be categorical about anything, but that seems to be pretty off-limits,” says Schneider.
On the other hand, ABC would have no problem with reporting an off-the-record remark made to another news organization in a different context. For example: “If you know about something through enterprise reporting, that’s fair game for an editorial discussion,” says Schneider.
In this instance, though, ABC was told that CNBC had a “verbal agreement” with the president that pre-interview remarks would be off-the-record, Schneider says.