October 9, 2013
President Obama and Kathleen Sebelius
President Obama and Kathleen Sebelius (Charles Dharapak/AP)

On MSNBC this afternoon, host Joy-Ann Reid asked National Review’s Robert Costa about his already-famous off-the-record meeting yesterday with President Obama. No dice, responded Costa. It was “off the record,” he said.

It was not, however, sufficiently off the record to stay off Costa’s Twitter feed. To the surprise of many Washington insiders, Costa yesterday banged out this microblogging message:

You’re not supposed to do that, whispered a wide circle of clued-in Beltway operators. When it comes to a White House meeting, “off the record,” in the interpretation of many, means not only that you don’t repeat what was said in that meeting but you also don’t even acknowledge the existence of the session. That’s the general attitude that the Erik Wemple Blog encountered when checking with attendees at an off-the-record meeting of progressive journos at the White House last December. Politico reported in May on a briefing whose existence was off the record.

So is tweeting about such an event a breach of protocol? Yes, says Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidency scholar at Towson University who closely tracks presidential interactions with the media. “That’s what ‘off the record’ has generally meant, because if you talk about it, then everybody wants to know what happened and you have people like me coming to you to ask what, when and why,” says Kumar.

When asked about his understanding of the situation, Costa replied via e-mail: “I decline to comment.” That’s better than the White House, which hasn’t responded to an inquiry about the ground rules.

So what’s the deal here — does “off the record” automatically and intrinsically mean that you cannot even discuss the existence of a spin meeting with the president of the United States? Phil Corbett, the standards editor at the New York Times, took on that question at the request of the Erik Wemple Blog: “My experience suggests that there is no single, universally agreed-upon definition of terms like ‘off the record,’ ‘on background,’ etc. Given that, I think it’s always important for a reporter to clarify any agreement or ground rules case by case. Of course, our preference is always for things to be on the record.”

Our hope is that Costa violently broke with protocol, that he expressly defied the wishes of the White House, that he incurred the wrath of the president himself, that he is persona non grata in the executive branch for his tweet. This is one protocol, after all, that needs a big stick of dynamite.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.