Pinning Down the “Jackass” Tale

A tweeted slip reveals a complicated arrangement

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.

But Harwood told Politico’s Michael Calderone nothing that would suggest that any such agreement had been entered into:

“The custom in television, as I understand it, is that when you have an interview of this kind, the little chit-chat when you are getting ready to sit down to do the real interview is off the record,” Harwood says.

“It’s one of those things that’s like an understanding, as people have understandings with sources,” he continued. “And if you have a relationship of trust with someone, as I feel I do with the White House and the president, specifically, I felt like I should honor it.”

Brian Steel, a CNBC spokesperson, refused to provide any information on the way that any off-the-record agreement, if any, was reached between the network and the White House. Nor would he say whether the network had any standing policy on the on- or off-the-record nature of such pre-interview remarks.

“The only thing I’m going to tell you on the record is that this was off-the-record,” says Steel.

While Harwood would certainly not be alone in his description of television’s pre-interview chit-chat custom, he would be unlikely to find unanimity. And it seems that operating on that assumption is a strange relic in an era where television reporters—who are supposed to be reporters first, no matter their outlet—are free to blog or tweet what they learn, and no longer rely on only what the camera captures in a formal interview to tell their story.

It didn’t take long for audio of Obama’s exchange to be obtained and leaked by the usually Hollywood That audio was embedded in, among many other places, Calderone’s Politico blog.

But when Calderone’s Politico colleague, Ben Smith, in something of a scoop, obtained and posted video of the exchange on his own blog, higher-ups quickly decided that the video should be pulled. Smith complied, and disclosed via an update that “wiser heads” had decided it had to go. (Meanwhile, the audio version obtained by TMZ and embedded in Michael Calderone’s blog remains live on Politico’s site.)

After Politico was contacted for comment by CJR, Smith made a second update meant to explain the disappearance to his post, attributed to Politico managing editor Bill Nichols:

We just felt upon reflection that it was more respectful to a fellow news-gathering operation to take it down. We had no complaints from ABC, CNBC, the White House or anyone else.

In response to emailed questions from CJR, Nichols sent the same quote, and failed to address questions regarding who at Politico had made the decision, or why they felt it was appropriate to make the audio—but not the video—available on Politico’s site. After a follow-up phone call, Nichols declined any further comment, saying that he thought Politico had “said all we need to say about this.”

But before the video was pulled from Smith’s blog, CNN had saved the footage, and began airing it. (Talking Points Memo has since posted a capture of CNN’s footage, which, as Gawker pointed out, clearly bares Politico’s remnant watermark in the upper right corner.)

The leaked video makes it pretty clear that Obama himself wasn’t certain that the exchange was off-the-record. After the “jackass,” the crowd in the room belts out some laughter, and Obama begins to look around the room—to his aides, perhaps—making a cutting motion across his neck, all the while stammering:

“No, now, this, all this stuff—I’m assuming all this stuff… Where’s the pool? Come on guys. Let, cut the president some slack.”

While TPM’s clip cuts off there, other versions have the president continuing one more beat:

“I got a lot of other stuff on my plate.”

Now, the president of the United States, having run the harsh gamut of an election, ought to be the most sophisticated and cautious interview subject on the planet. (Especially this president, who once scuttled a key advisor because she wasn’t careful to make it clear that she was talking off-the-record.)

So, if the president were certain, via a prior verbal agreement, that his remarks were off-the-record, he’d have no need to plea that his jibe not be reported and become another distraction to his administration. Nor, had there been an explicit verbal agreement, would he have to resort to alluding that he was “assuming” the conversation would not come out.

There probably isn’t a journalist who, after talking with a source, hasn’t decided to hold some nugget learned, or off-color remark made close to the chest, to avoid antagonizing a source, losing access, or muddying a story’s narrative—especially one that’s not germane to the story at hand. From time to time, it’s not a particularly honorable practice. But it’s part of a complicated calculus that allows reporters to do their jobs.

Yes, America would have soldiered on not knowing the president’s thoughts on Kanye West. But what, if in a similar intemperate remark, the president had let slip a similar snide remark about, say Vladimir Putin, or admitted something unreported about an important policy? Would news consumers ever hear word of it?

When answering that question, remember that this time we only did because ABC made a mistake—one they’ve promised to try not to make again.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.