When is a public speech to hundreds of people not public? When it’s “off the record.”
Vicki Kennedy, widow of the late senator Ted Kennedy, gave the keynote last week at the Wendt Center dinner, a fundraiser for the grief counseling facility. Minutes before she took the podium to discuss her husband’s last year of life, organizers told us her remarks were off-limits to the media — even though there were 350 other folks in the room.
Kennedy told us Saturday, “The center felt they were acting in my interest to ask that it not be quoted. . . . I appreciate their kindness and warmth to me as I shared my personal story.”
Declaring a public event “off the record” is an increasingly common phenomenon, especially in political Washington. What once was an honor-bound agreement between an individual reporter and source has devolved into a unilateral ban on writing anything uttered by a VIP speaker.
Last month, CIA Director David H. Petraeus’s speech to 600 guests at the OSS Society was declared off the record. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (who knows a bit about privacy disputes) spoke to 200 students at Harvard last week in a session closed to the press. Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are routinely criticized for banning media from their addresses; Sonia Sotomayor spoke to 1,800 alumni, faculty and students at Yale two years ago about her nomination to the highest court — but no media, not even Yale journalists, were allowed to cover it.
Most brazenly: After President Obama assumed office, campaign manager David Plouffe agreed to speak to reporters at the National Press Club . . . but demanded that it not be covered. Politico’s editor-in-chief, John Harris, pulled out as moderator, scoffing at the idea of off-the-record talks with “a newsworthy person.”
“It’s been an ongoing problem, and it’s worse with Twitter, Facebook and all the ways we connect,” said Rick Blum, coordinator of Sunshine in Government Initiative, which calls for all speeches by government officials to be open for coverage. These days anyone with a cellphone can tape any speech — or selective, misleading portions. (Remember Shirley Sherrod?) Banning reporters, he said makes it difficult to objectively know what powerbrokers are really saying.
So what’s going on here? One theory, he said, is that speakers want to protect themselves from the poorly worded sentence that might come back to haunt them.
“More troublesome,” Blum said: Others are cynically tailoring their remarks to specific groups.
Event hosts, thrilled to land big names, will agree to media bans rather than risk the possibility that the speaker might pull out. Former Bush official Meghan O’Sullivan canceled a speech about Iraq at Indiana University after the student newspaper refused her off-the-record demand, but that’s unusual. George W. Bush— who gets a reported $100,000 per speech — has closed most of his, including September’s address to the Concordia Summit Group. “We want to respect his wishes to stay out of any public policy debate,” an organizer told the Palm Beach Daily News.
Another factor is economic: The lecture circuit can be lucrative, and who wants to give it away for free? Many speakers have only one really socko address they deliver over and over. If it got reported, it might become stale.
Washington Speakers Bureau and the Harry Walker Agency — two major bookers in the paid-speech business — did not respond to requests for comment, on or off the record.