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.