The media news burst of the morning springs from the Web site of the Des Moines Register. The Obama campaign, without comment, released a transcript of an extensive discussion that it held yesterday with Laura Hollingsworth, president and publisher of the Register, and Rick Green, editor/vice-president of news. Why’s that big news?
Because the Obama campaign had initially stipulated that the conversation between the president and the Register’s brass be strictly off the record. The Register reluctantly agreed to the condition. Editor Green, however, couldn’t remain silent about the whole transaction. He penned a piece this morning arguing that the interview should have been on the record:
Just two weeks before Election Day, the discussion, I believe, would have been valuable to all voters, but especially those in Iowa and around the country who have yet to decide between the incumbent Democrat and his Republican opponent.
Unfortunately, what we discussed was off-the-record. It was a condition, we were told, set by the White House.
Then the Obama campaign went ahead and moved the entire thing onto the record. It’s now sitting there for the whole world to see on the Register’s Web site.
Some lessons from this little journalistic twist:
1) High-level officials aren’t generally more candid off the record. Here are a few of the points that Obama stressed in his chat with the Register, originally off the record:
I said that I’d cut taxes for middle-class families — I did. I said that we would make sure to make college more affordable — we have. I said I would clean up the financial system and pass the toughest Wall Street reforms since the 1930s, and we have. I said that I would make sure that people don’t go broke in this country because they get sick — we did that. I said I’d end the war in Iraq — I have. I said we’d got after al Qaeda and bin Laden — we have. I said we’d begin a process where we could initially blunt the momentum of the Taliban and then a process in which we’d begin transitioning out — we’re in the process of doing that.
The notion that somehow we’ve been bad for business is obviously contradicted by the evidence. Corporate profits have been at record levels up until maybe last quarter. The stock market basically has recovered all its losses that it experienced from the financial sector. The auto industry has come roaring back. Our exports have doubled.
So I just want to contrast with what happens if Mitt Romney is elected. I know that he likes to talk about his Massachusetts record. The truth is there really were two Mitt Romneys. There was the Mitt Romney who initially got elected, passed Obamacare, and was interested in being the governor of Massachusetts. After his second year, it was the Mitt Romney who was running for president and abandoned all his previous positions.
At one point in the discussion, Obama signals to his interlocutors that he’s really going to leverage this off-the-record arrangement. That he’s really going to go deep with the candor. That precedes this:
The second thing I’m confident we’ll get done next year is immigration reform. And since this is off the record, I will just be very blunt. Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community. And this is a relatively new phenomenon. George Bush and Karl Rove were smart enough to understand the changing nature of America. And so I am fairly confident that they’re going to have a deep interest in getting that done. And I want to get it done because it’s the right thing to do and I’ve cared about this ever since I ran back in 2008.
2) Media organizations get starry-eyed about presidents. Green’s post on the arrangements makes it clear that the newspaper didn’t want to accept the off-the-record condition. So why did it accept? Here’s the explanation:
We relented and took the call. How could we not? It’s the leader of the free world on line one.
Here, Des Moines Register, is how you say “no.” N. O. It’s not that hard. Newspapers — media outlets — exist for the very purpose of thumbing their noses at power. Here was an ideal opportunity to do so.
3) Herewith another form of quote approval. Mayhem broke out within journalism this year after the New York Times reported on something sinister known as “quote approval,” a practice whereby journalists have to ship the quotes they’d like to use back to their sources for their say-so. Sometimes those sources insist on editing the quotes and other slimy arrangements.
The migration of the Obama-Register interview from off to on the record is merely a subspecies of quote approval. The off-the-record stipulation afforded the campaign a low-deductible insurance policy. If the president had said something dumb, the campaign could have just kept the whole thing off the record. No risk, no damage.
But once it concluded that he hadn’t stepped over any line, then sure, release it. We’re all in favor of transparency here!
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki explained to reporters today: “This was a call that was meant to be a personal check in with a publisher and an editor.” That version of events doesn’t quite square with Green’s note about how the paper had lobbied for an on-the-record conversation.