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 focused-TMZ.com. 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.