Here's another problem with 'off the record'

Example comes from excellent story about pundit's bogus Pulitzer claim

Since most people would rather watch sausage being made than read about "the rules" of the journalism business, you are free to head for your nearest sausage factory. (This turned out longer than I thought it would, too.)


Still with us?

OK, here's a question: Would you consider yourself bound by the terms of a business proposition even though you've yet to agree to those terms? How about before you've even heard the terms?

Of course not, you say?

Well, journalists acquiesce to this seemingly raw deal on a regular basis (not all journalists, and certainly not all the time).

Here's an example - not a perfect one, but it'll do - ripped from today's headlines, as they say: You may have heard about the kerfuffle hounding noted conservative writer/pundit Jonah Goldberg, whose new book claims on the jacket that he has "twice been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize," even though the truth is that he's never been nominated; he's had his work entered twice, which requires little more than a publisher's willingness to fill out a form and fork over $50.

The distinction is meaningful, especially to journalists, so this story written by's Bill Dedman is receiving a lot of attention. Goldberg's bogus claim, however, is not what this post is about.

My issue is in this next paragraph that Dedman wrote about the second of two emails he received from Goldberg while seeking his side of the story: "Two hours later, after appearing on a radio show about the Tuesday primary voting, Goldberg sent a longer answer in email, but insisted that it be off the record. He was asked to provide a comment on the record, but declined."

Emphasis mine. Curious, I sent Dedman an email that gets to my earlier hypothetical about business propositions with assumed terms:

I'm wondering whether Goldberg insisted (that the email be off the record) before or after sending you that email; I get the impression that the insistence was included in the email and, if so, I am wondering why you would consider yourself bound to honor his request.

That type of assumption on the part of newsmakers has long been a pet peeve of mine (along with the companies that assume we will honor their "embargoed" press releases before even asking.)

So I guess my question is: Did you grant him a courtesy? Or did you feel bound to honor his request? If the latter, I'd ask why. If the former, well, I've done the same on occasion and at my discretion ... but I would have been hard pressed to do so in this case.

That last line meant that Goldberg, being a professional journalist himself, certainly knows the rules: If you want to answer a reporter's question off the record, ask the reporter first if that's OK, otherwise everything you say (or write in an email) is fair game for publication.

Dedman replied almost immediately:

I understand the point you're making. I granted him the courtesy. I could have, by rights, insisted that his note was on the record, not having agreed to the condition. ...

In any case, it didn't matter. I asked him what he wanted to say, and he didn't come back with more. But previously he had responded on the substance, and his publisher sent more (including a comment from Goldberg that wasn't intended for my eyes), so there was no need to insist on the point. If I had had nothing from him at all, I may have handled it differently, out of fairness to make sure his voice was in the piece.

Fair enough. I have little quarrel with Dedman's judgment call; it's Goldberg's assumption that his "insistence" would be respected that bothers me. And it pains me to think there are journalists who, unlike Dedman, believe that Goldberg or anyone else has a right to assume such a thing.

Terms are agreed upon before business is concluded.

And just so we can end this digression on lighter note, here's the last line of Dedman's email to me: "By the way, all this was off the record. (No, that's a joke. Just kidding. Feel free to write about this if you like.)"

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